BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County School Board is in need of some fresh perspective.
That was the assessment offered by the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association on Friday as the teachers union announced its candidate endorsements.
In all three of the nonpartisan races, the union picked the challengers over the incumbents.
"It really comes down to the fact that we need new direction," union president Joe Vitalo said.
In the District 1 race, the union chose Nilsa Colon Toro over first-term incumbent John Sweeney. Toro, the sole challenger, is a former paraprofessional who now works as a receptionist at Springstead High School in Spring Hill.
"Her representation on the School Board would bring a voice and understanding to two mainly silenced groups within our community: to all hourly waged taxpayers and to the ever fast-growing Hispanic population," Vitalo wrote in the endorsement announcement. "Though the incumbent John Sweeney is a former teacher, and a business owner, we feel that his connection to the constituents of Hernando County is narrow when compared to those of Ms. Toro."
In the District 3 race, the union picked Keane Chapman, a national sales manager for Alumi-Guard Inc. in Brooksville, over Dianne Bonfield, a former teacher who is nearing the end of her first term. Chapman is Bonfield's sole challenger.
"His skills in business and management lends to a much-needed stability and forward-thinking," Vitalo wrote of Chapman.
In the District 5 race, the union essentially told voters to pick either of two challengers over Sandra Nicholson, a board veteran with 16 years of experience.
Mike Bainum is a vocational teacher at Hernando High in Brooksville. Cynthia Moore is a retired teacher who once had the position Vitalo holds now.
"We feel that when it comes to finding out what is going on, both Mr. Bainum and Ms. Moore bring in a new and fresh perspective for 'building bridges,' " Vitalo wrote.
All three incumbents declined to be interviewed by the union. Bonfield and Sweeney both issued statements in recent weeks saying they considered it a conflict of interest to seek the endorsement or accept donations from a group that negotiates a contract with the district.
Vitalo said the union did not hold that decision against the incumbents, but the move forced the group to base its decisions solely on their record.
During interviews, union officials "focused on the candidate's ability and plan of action to connect with the public, gather unbiased information and their decision-making process," Vitalo said.
The current board's actions during the tumultuous tenure of former superintendent Wayne Alexander also figured in the recommendations. The board waffled on the decision to keep Alexander despite calls from the union to fire him, Vitalo said, shaking the union's confidence.
"The entire process showed that in order for the School Board to address the needs of our diverse community and not to have history repeat itself, it is time for a changing of the guard," he said.
The board has faltered on other tough decisions since then, too, Vitalo said. The incumbents have so far refused to levy an additional quarter-mill of property tax, a move that the union says is crucial to help fund education.
All three incumbents have been pretty teacher-friendly, however.
They were part of a board that voted unanimously two years ago to ratify a contract that gave teachers a 2.39 percent average pay increase for the current year, plus 1.5 percent more to cover health care increases.
Last year, the board denied the union's request that it contribute more toward family health insurance plans, but did agree to absorb more of the overall premium increase from Blue Cross Blue Shield. Board members have been adamant about avoiding layoffs despite a brutal budget picture.
Those kinds of stances are only part of the union's considerations, Vitalo insisted.
"We're looking out for more than ourselves," he said.
None of the incumbents returned calls seeking comment Friday.
All three races will be on the Aug. 24 primary ballot. If one of the candidates in the three-way race doesn't win a majority of votes, the two with the highest number of votes will be on the Nov. 2 general election ballot.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]