LAND O'LAKES — In Pasco County's lone contested School Board race, political newcomer Don Stephenson is casting himself as the fiscal conservative who wants to upset incumbent Joanne Hurley's re-election bid.
The advertising creative director acknowledges he has an uphill climb against Hurley, a retired teacher and turnpike spokeswoman who handily defeated two well known activists in 2008 to win the vacant District 2 seat. More than one voter has questioned whether he's not the guy who ran for superintendent four years ago. (That was Steve Donaldson.)
He also acknowledged that some voters might question his claim of fiscal conservatism knowing that he had declared bankruptcy in 2010, while still living in California.
So he's not holding back.
"I have yet to hear her come forward with a single tangible idea of what she would like to see the School Board do," Stephenson said. "She obviously has a lot of name recognition. That's why I think it's that substance of ideas that is going to put me over the top."
Hurley has heard the criticisms. She's not firing back.
"I am not concerned with what he says," Hurley said, suggesting that her lesser known opponent is simply trying to differentiate himself. "I am more concerned about what the parents and the staff and the community think about what I am doing. I have done exactly what I said I was going to do. I have fulfilled all my responsibilities."
She ticked off a list to elaborate, including balanced budgets, improved student performance, revised district policies, met federal and state mandates, increased communication with the public and transparency. Of course, Hurley noted, meeting those requirements has meant some decisions that have hurt.
"I understand our staff feels they've borne the brunt of the fiscal challenges," she said. "Our staff morale is low. That's one of the things I hope to focus on in the coming years."
Stephenson argues that the board and Hurley have done nothing to ease that pain. He contends the district could have looked at several areas other than furloughs and job cuts to save money. His suggestions include privatizing some district services, such as busing, and conducting an audit to make sure all dependents on the district health insurance plan belong there.
Hurley opposes privatization, and notes that the dependent audit has been done. She said the board has made spending cuts that can be restored, such as furloughs, rather than permanent ones, such as reductions in benefits or pay.
"We have tried to determine how we can best keep any cuts on the temporary side of the ledger ... with the hope that when things improve, we can improve," she said.
More than anything, Stephenson said, he wants to see board members who take active roles to get things done. If ideas aren't worthwhile, then don't do them, he said. But at least take the time to explore them.
He offered the four-day school week as an example.
"I was against the idea," Stephenson said. "But I wasn't against the idea that (board member Steve Luikart) was looking at it. I want to see a lot more of that. Show people that you are engaged and trying to find solutions."
Hurley said she has worked behind the scenes to make the board more effective in its operations with the administration. With an elected superintendent, she said, the governance structure is one of checks and balances, with each having clear responsibilities, yet neither dependent on the other.
That has meant, for instance, making sure documents get to the board members and the public in a more timely fashion. It also has led to things such as documents in Spanish and reaching out through social media.
"I continue to push for the professionalism of our board as a whole," Hurley said.
Hurley did not want to touch the issue of Stephenson's bankruptcy. He also has listed a negative net worth on his financial disclosure statement, compared to Hurley's reported $2.4 million.
Stephenson explained that he was a victim of the recession. A client he had depended on for freelance work pulled the plug after seven years, costing Stephenson close to $2,500 in monthly income, he said.
"It's not a case of us living beyond our means or mismanagement," he said. "The bottom fell out of our income overnight."
His family canceled expenses like cable television, and stopped watering the lawn, among other reductions. Stephenson looked for ways to add income but couldn't find any. Bankruptcy became the option.
He said he would use his experience to guide his decision-making on the board.
"The school district has options at its disposal to make up its shortfall. I believe it just requires the political will to take them," he said.
As an example, Stephenson has suggested cutting the International Baccalaureate program for high-achieving high school students, calling it too expensive and suggesting its philosophy is unAmerican. Hurley backs IB and said she would expand it, if the money were available.
The two do agree sometimes.
Both oppose any effort to create a policy allowing for "inspirational messages" or prayer in school. Both support expanding school choice options. Both back the Penny for Pasco sales tax referendum. Both say they will not ask voters again whether the district should have an appointed instead of an elected superintendent.
They plan to campaign through the summer, including door-to-door visits. The election is Aug. 14. School Board races are nonpartisan.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.