NEW PORT RICHEY — The District 3 seat on the Pasco County School Board almost came open in the spring of 2009, when incumbent Cathi Martin signaled her intent to resign.
Before Martin changed her mind and decided to complete her term, lawyer Sallie Skipper and teacher Anthony Terranova applied to Gov. Charlie Crist for the position. They're now joined by two real estate agents — Cynthia Armstrong of Coldwell Banker and Mike Ryan of Samuelson Builders Realty — in the race to succeed Martin, who is retiring after three terms.
Though they agree on several issues, such as their support of changes to the state class size amendment, the candidates differ on some key items including their willingness to raise local property taxes.
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Cynthia Armstrong, 55, moved to Pasco County 32 years ago as a teacher at River Ridge High School. After teaching for several years, she ran a print shop, a computer shop and then became a real estate agent.
She said her background in education and business offers the perspective that the School Board needs as it cuts budgets while improving academics.
"I want to set the course so we do succeed," Armstrong said. "It's too important. We can't fail."
She's a strong supporter of career academies, stressing the need to ensure that every student gets a relevant education. In preparing children for work as well as college, she said, the district also does its part to improve the local economy.
In that endeavor, she said, the district must look for ways to involve businesses in mentoring, partnerships and other relationships with the schools.
Armstrong opposed increasing the local property tax without voter approval. She said the School Board should look for more places to cut spending in the meantime, reviewing all contracts for savings. Teachers might have to pay more for their benefits, and the grass might not get cut so often, she said, "but learning can still go on."
She recommended pushing lawmakers to consider a different source of funding for schools than property taxes, arguing a revamped sales tax system could be a much fairer method.
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Mike Ryan, 52, also stressed his business experience as a selling point for his candidacy. He is broker-owner of Samuelsen Builders Realty, and before coming to Pasco County he worked with school districts to analyze their budgets and staffing.
Ryan said his time spent outside the county gives him a different perspective than the candidates who have lived and worked here the majority of their lives.
He jumped into the race because he had grown tired of politics as usual.
"I am tired of hearing people tell me what they believe I want to hear," Ryan said. "I want someone I can believe. … I'm at a point in my life where I am done talking about it. … I can't not do this."
He acknowledged that he does not have all the answers to the district's financial and education concerns. But he proposed considering privatization of services wherever it makes sense as one possibility.
Ryan said he did not support increasing the local property tax. He said he would back a furlough for employees over cutting their pay.
Teacher morale is already too low, Ryan said.
"Most of them are very dedicated and work very hard," he said. "There are things we can do to make their jobs easier."
He called for more curriculum mapping as an example, to reduce teacher planning time while allowing flexibility in lessons. He also proposed finding more ways to get volunteers in classrooms.
Ryan said he learned much about serving on a public school board as a member and chairman of the Dayspring Academy board of directors. If elected to the School Board, he said, "I'm going to join as a listener."
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Sallie Skipper, 60, said she first started thinking about running for School Board when Martin announced she might quit.
"That's what sort of planted the seed," said Skipper, a New Port Richey lawyer. After that, she began researching the board and the work the members do, and decided to run for the vacant seat this year.
"I've always been a hard worker. I like to listen and I like to learn," Skipper said. "I want to work for my community."
When reviewing budget options, Skipper said she sees pros and cons.
Raising taxes, for instance, would detract from the affordable housing that has drawn so many people to Pasco County, she said. Having secondary teachers instruct six periods of six sounds fine at first, but it would mean layoffs and lost planning time, she continued.
"I wish I had an answer," she said. "If I did have an answer, I told (School Board member) Joanne Hurley I would have passed it on to her and we could have been done with it."
She suggested asking district employees for help finding the best decisions.
Skipper said the district should seek more ways to get parents into the schools. She also called for stricter enforcement of dress code and student conduct, giving teachers and administrators more control over discipline.
Treasurer for superintendent Heather Fiorentino's re-election bid, Skipper said she is not Fiorentino's handpicked candidate, nor even a personal friend, and she would not be a rubber stamp for the superintendent if elected.
"I think we're lucky to have her," Skipper said. "But do I always agree with her? No."
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Anthony Terranova, 31, has taught at Cotee River Elementary School since 2006.
He said he wants to serve on the School Board to give the board the voice of someone on the front lines of education.
"I feel I'm going to be able to articulate to them the needs down to the classroom," Terranova said.
Terranova contended that school districts should be looking for ways to increase revenue to pay for the things that might otherwise get cut. He backed a 0.25 mill property tax increase, observing that the overall tax rate remains lower than it was in 2002, when homes were similarly valued.
He also proposed looking into such ideas as placing solar panels on all schools to save energy costs and working with lawmakers to allow districts to ask voters whether they want to tax themselves to pay for clubs and sports.
Terranova proposed dropping the district's commitment to Learning Focused Strategies, in which all teachers are trained on "best practices" for instruction. He called the investment "a huge waste of money."
In concept it might be a good idea, he said, especially if the district were hiring teachers who did not attend education school. But most teachers learned these practices in college, he said, and for those who didn't, "we didn't need to go to a company to give us this stuff."
Terranova acknowledged that he has little name recognition in the race, especially in comparison to his opponents. He said he hoped that people will listen to his positions and then decide who is best for the job.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.