To get a sense of the newest Hernando County School Board chairman's philosophical leanings, consider the premise of the book he is writing.
Tentatively titled When Did We Stop Believing and Thinking?, the tome, James Yant says, will make the case that Americans have stopped believing in the country's strengths, and stopped thinking about how to tackle tough problems like the brutalized economy.
The country's status in the world has suffered for it, Yant contends.
"When you're thinking, you're proactive rather than reactive," he said. "We are reactive now."
That assessment has implications for the Hernando school district, Yant said. The School Board, superintendent, teachers, parents and other community partners all must contribute to the country's resurgence, he says.
A retired insurance agent from modest means with 25 years of community service in Hernando County on his resume, Yant is halfway into his first term on the School Board. Tapped by fellow members last month to serve as chairman for the next year, Yant says he will guide the district toward the same goals he's emphasizing in his book.
"We're going to have to buy in to unifying," he said.
From humble beginnings
One day last week, piano music floated through an open front window of Yant's stately Tudor-style home in East Linden Estates in Spring Hill.
Before a visitor rang the door bell, Yant had been sitting at an upright piano, playing a gospel tune called Jesus, Name Above All Names. Photos of his two sons, Anthony and Daryl, in younger years watched over him as he played. He smiled when a baby's holler echoed through the immaculately kept house. His wife, Christene, was babysitting the couple's granddaughter, Jeniah, he explained.
The tranquil upper-middle class scene is a far cry from the modest and hectic — though loving — environment that Yant knew as a child. Born and raised in Apopka, a small town northwest of Orlando, Yant, 64, was the middle of three brothers and shared a house with three adopted siblings. His father was a mechanic; his mother kept house and worked as a cosmetologist.
Yant attended a then-segregated school named after slave poet Phyllis Wheatley. The school included grades 1 to 12, and most students were active in extracurricular activities from choir to 4-H, Yant recalls. He played basketball and pounded drums for the band.
Yant doesn't recall many discipline problems and attributes that to many watchful eyes in the tightly knit African-American community.
"You had people who parented who weren't your parents," he said. "That helped a lot."
Yant had an interest in business even as a boy, selling candy apples and peanuts and delivering newspapers to make a little money. He took some business courses as a high school student and later attended Hampton Junior College, a segregated school in Ocala. He graduated in 1968 from Bethune-Cookman College (now Bethune-Cookman University), a historically black college in Daytona Beach.
His degree in business education merged his two passions.
"I think I've always had the ability to break things down and make them easy to understand," he said.
Yant was honorably discharged in 1972 after nearly four years in the Air Force and earned a master's degree in guidance and counseling from Florida A&M University, where he met Christene in a statistics class. They married in 1973 and came to Hernando County because she landed a job as a high school counselor at Hernando High School. (She retired last year after 36 years with the school district, serving most recently as a counselor at Springstead High.)
Yant worked one year as a business education teacher and then a counselor at Hernando High. The following year, he took a job as minority recruiter for Pasco-Hernando Community College and later worked as an academic and financial aid adviser.
He was quick to get involved in the community, coaching in the segregated Kennedy Park Little League in Brooksville. He had a knack for diplomacy, recalls Lorenzo Hamilton, a former assistant principal at Hernando High who helped found the league.
At one point, two white families sought to have their children join the league, and Hamilton turned to Yant.
"I knew that I needed to have the right people to coach that segment of the operation to make things run smooth so we could move forward," Hamilton said. "He handled it like a professional, just like he handles things today. He's honest, sincere and has an even temper. What would make other folks get upset and bent out of shape, he doesn't take personally. He just moves through that."
In 1985, a State Farm Insurance agent approached Yant to see if he was interested in working in the insurance business. Yant took a leave of absence to give it a try and then resigned a month later to open his insurance business in Spring Hill. He would keep the business until his retirement last year.
Over those two-plus decades, Yant would continue to be an active volunteer, serving on boards for PHCC, the YMCA and the chamber of commerce. He has been a mentor for Big Brothers Big Sisters for the past decade.
By the time he decided to run for the School Board seat left vacant by longtime board member Jim Malcolm, Yant and his wife had a broad base of support. He took the most votes in a three-way race and would go on to win by 6 percentage points in a runoff with business owner Gene Magrini.
"I thought I could offer something," Yant recalls about his decision to run. "I've worked with children, but have never been able to offer a business perspective."
Businessman to board member
Yant took his seat in November 2008 during a tumultuous time for the school district.
School grades were on the upswing, with the district earning its first "A" grade under the state's testing system; 11,000 brand-new, leased Dell computers were delivered to schools in a top-to-bottom technology makeover.
But the faltering economy was already forcing another, unwelcome change: budget cuts. Enrollment was down, while Explorer K-8 in Spring Hill had a chaotic opening due to overcrowding. By the end of 2008 — less than two years after arriving in Hernando County — then-superintendent Wayne Alexander was looking for a new job in New England to join his new wife, who was involved in a visitation dispute over children from a previous marriage.
At a meeting the next month, Yant said he was worried that many in the district had been left afraid and uncertain, both by changes Alexander had made and his forceful management style.
"You can have a team where all the players are frightened of the coach, or you can have a team that loves playing for that coach," Yant said at the time. "We need everybody to be a part of this team."
Alexander changed his mind about leaving, but two months later he was looking again, and Yant was one of two board members who called for his dismissal, contending he had violated his contract by not informing the board of his plans to depart. The next month, Yant was scathing in his criticism on Alexander's evaluation form, writing that his management style "lacked accountability and transparency." By September, the entire board had agreed to sever ties with Alexander.
The board also had to deal with the revelation that ineligible students had been admitted to Nature Coast Technical High School and a controversy over an ultimately scuttled no-zero grading policy.
These difficulties strained the board's cohesiveness, Yant recalled last week.
"I feel we were probably more fragmented at that time," he said. "When all this was going on, we weren't focused on the children; we were focused on trying to get through one storm after another."
Yant stresses fiscal conservatism. He voted last year against moving forward with construction of a new K-8 school north of Weeki Wachee. The K-5 portion of the school is set to open in fall 2011.
He joined fellow board members in opposing superintendent Bryan Blavatt's plan to hire a second assistant superintendent, and he supported a shift in school start times to save in transportation costs.
But he has shown some flexibility. He was the lone voice of support this year to increase the tax rate by a quarter mill to bolster the district's operating fund.
Yant's votes also reflect a tendency to fall on the side of employees.
He was part of a unanimous vote to raise teacher pay in 2008 and dissented in a vote last year to slash more than 200 jobs. The board reversed that decision later that month.
Most recently, Yant joined the majority of a split vote to provide annual raises and associated benefits totaling nearly a quarter-million dollars to administrative, professional, technical and supervisory staffers.
Yant says he's prepared to make tough decisions in the coming years if funding sinks to worst-case levels. He has been among the board members who are reluctant to scale back or cut bus service for those living within 2 miles of schools, but says he's willing to consider it. The same goes for a stepped-up effort to convince the teachers union to forgo the automatic pay raises built into its contract.
"The last thing you want to do is eliminate people, because they keep the system running," he said.
Hopeful about positive change
Yant shrugs off the fact that his colleagues' unanimous decision to pick him as chairman marks a milestone for the board: He is the first African-American in that post.
Despite the county's checkered racial history, Yant says he has always been well received here. He notes that he served as president of the West Hernando Rotary Club back in the 1990s and was chairman of the PHCC board of trustees.
"I don't look at it the same way as other people simply because I've done those things," he said.
Yant will lead a board that is not much different from the one he joined two years ago. Board members Dianne Bonfield and John Sweeney won second terms this election cycle; Bonfield was tapped for vice chairwoman. Only four-term incumbent Sandra Nicholson did not return, ousted by veteran educator Cynthia Moore.
Yant deserves the gavel, said Pat Fagan, whom Yant replaced as chairman.
"I can tell you right now he has the students at heart," Fagan said.
The chairman directs discussion during workshops when policy decisions are typically made, and as the board grapples with a tight budget and potential cuts, there are certain to be dissenting opinions. The current board has been amicable and functional, able to disagree and then go out for dinner. Yant says he hopes to build on that by drawing a distinction between debate and dialogue.
"When you debate, you're thinking about a winner," he said. "This is not a debate; it's a dialogue about what's best for students."
The district needs to make it a priority to get more parents involved, he said, noting successful efforts like those at Brooksville Elementary School. He would like to see more foreign language offerings, especially Chinese.
Blavatt, now in his seventh month as superintendent, says he is encouraged by the meetings he's had with Yant since he took the chairman's post.
"I think he truly is a guy that's dedicated to doing what's best for kids," Blavatt said.
Blavatt has already made impressive inroads here and has shown he can be trusted as a chief executive, Yant said.
"We have to recognize we are policymakers, not micromanagers," Yant said of the board. "If we do that and give him leeway, and he's transparent to the board, then everything should be a smooth process in improving the educational environment in Hernando County."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]