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Challenges lie ahead for Pasco School Board's newcomers

LAND O'LAKES — Four years ago, Allen Altman was a newcomer on a Pasco County School Board filled with veteran members.

After walking into re-election without opposition, Altman is now the board's senior member with one full term under his belt. The retirement of three incumbents has created a new dynamic for the five-person board, which now has a cumulative experience of six years of service.

"They're going to be faced with a multitude of challenges," Altman said Wednesday. "The three that won might look back and find they got the short straw."

They'll have to deal with limited revenue, contentious contract negotiations, low employee morale and continued class size compliance concerns — and that's just for starters. And at the same time, the members will need to learn how to work with each other.

But the newly elected members don't see any major obstacles to a smooth transition.

"Based on spending the last six months of my life with all the candidates, I think we're very closely on the same page on many issues," said Alison Crumbley, who won the District 4 seat serving west-central Pasco. "I think we will be a board that works well together."

That doesn't mean everyone will always agree. But it does suggest continued cooperation among board members, which the district has enjoyed for years, said Steve Luikart, who won the District 5 seat representing the county's northwest corner.

"I don't think any one of the five board members who are there at this time has a political agenda," Luikart said. "They are there for the best interest of students."

And with their different backgrounds, they should complement each other well, said Cynthia Armstrong, the winner of the District 3 seat that covers the county's southwest region.

The board will need that as it deals with a number of tough issues, she said.

"Obviously, with the voters turning down the tax referendum but not giving us the flexibility on the class size amendment, they're definitely giving some challenges to the board," Armstrong said. "The voters have sent us a mixed message: They want more services, but they don't want to pay for it."

Armstrong and Luikart have not been supportive of additional taxes, saying that the district needs to live within its means. Each has called for a review of spending, starting with areas outside the classroom, such as administration.

Crumbley said she would have voted for the board's 0.25 mill tax increase this year and the referendum asking voters to let the board continue it, unlike her predecessor, Kathryn Starkey.

The search for new sources of money, or places to cut the budget, could lead to some dissension. Luikart said adding three motivated members to the mix could mean different ideas for solving key concerns.

Dealing with contract demands could prove troublesome, though, said Starkey, whose resignation took effect after Tuesday's board meeting. The board's priorities might not change, but the tax referendum and class size vote mean that employee raise demands will be difficult to meet.

Crumbley said she would not support using a new round of federal funding for education jobs this year, as the United School Employees of Pasco has requested, knowing that the district faces a shortfall of more than $40 million.

As issues emerge, look for some divergence among the new board members.

Crumbley supports charter schools, for instance, but Armstrong and Luikart have said they think charters harm public education. These views could come into play as the board confronts concerns over Imagine School at Land O'Lakes, which repeatedly has failed to meet local and state financial reporting and related requirements.

They also differ on teacher performance pay, which is gaining momentum throughout Florida and could come to Pasco County soon if the district participates in the state's federal Race to the Top grant program.

As the board moves ahead, Luikart said he hopes to see more transparency in the way the district sets its budgets. Crumbley expects to push for better communication between the board and superintendent and also among the board members. Armstrong figures that if discussions are open, the board will be more likely to come to consensus.

Altman, whose term as board chairman ends in two weeks, said he looks forward to what lies ahead.

"I'm confident that we are up to the challenge," he said. "We'll all work together to do the very best we can for the students and the taxpayers of Pasco County."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Challenges lie ahead for Pasco School Board's newcomers 11/03/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 8:33pm]
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