They spend much of their time talking about money, budgets and the reasons why a business background is just what voters need in hard economic times.
That is the essence of the race to succeed the retiring Jim Malcolm for a seat on the Hernando County School Board.
James Yant and Gene Magrini were the top two finishers in the three-candidate nonpartisan race in the August primary election. They now face each other in a runoff Nov. 4.
To be sure, both candidates have done their share of talking about children, teachers and raising academic achievement. But their chief focus has been on finding money to pay for it.
Magrini, a 43-year-old human resources consultant, says the board needs his experience managing people and budgets. He previously served as human resources director for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and as an administrator with Sunshine Youth Services.
"I look at every expenditure," he said. "I look at every single dime."
He has campaigned on the assertion that there's enough money in the budget to give Hernando teachers a 4.2 percent raise this year. In current negotiations, the district has offered teachers a boost worth $3.6-million, including a 3.5 percent salary increase and a 1.5 percent health care boost.
But giving such raises wouldn't be wise unless the board reduces costs in its current budget, Magrini said last week.
He said the board could find some savings from declining energy costs, as well as by renegotiating contracts with vendors. It should also shift more money from the capital construction budget to the operating budget to fund the maintenance department's annual $5-million budget, he said.
"Let's shift the whole $5-million over," Magrini said. "(We need) to get our teachers paid to the point where we are competitive with the surrounding counties. I believe that with every fiber of my being."
But shifting all of that money from the capital to the operating budget is illegal under current state law, said district finance director Deborah Bruggink. The district transfers as much money as it can from that budget for building maintenance — currently about $3.5-million. But the state won't allow capital money to be used for some maintenance department functions, she said.
Candidate James Yant has said the board should lobby the state Legislature to change such laws.
He, too, favors raises for teachers. But his campaign has emphasized the difficulty of doing so this year in light of plunging state and local tax revenues.
"I think the teachers' raise now is more important than it ever has been," Yant said, referring to the rising cost of living. "(But) we don't know how many times the state is going to call for a budget cut. I suspect two or three more times before this year is over. That's going to make it very difficult to do that."
Yant, 62, served as a member and chairman of Pasco-Hernando Community College's board of trustees. He began his career as a school counselor at Hernando High School and PHCC, before founding the Spring Hill insurance agency that bears his name. He has also served as a mentor for Big Brothers Big Sisters and other community youth efforts.
He said his business experience should count for at least as much as Magrini's, and perhaps more, since he built it from scratch.
"I started my business from zero," Yant said. "When we came to this county, we had one Volkswagen, a black-and-white TV, some clothes and a few pots and pans. That's all we had."
On education policy, Yant favors greater district efforts to boost early childhood readiness, reaching out to teach new parents about effective early literacy and parenting practices. He would also work to reduce the dropout rate through more effective community partnerships.
Magrini, by contrast, sees the need for a School Board that operates in a more corporate fashion, overseeing district expenditures and pushing for more teacher autonomy. He faults the current board for mismanaging the rezoning process and locating the gifted program at the new Explorer K-8 School. Both decisions have resulted in unnecessary burdens at that school, he said.
He has netted endorsements from a range of organizations, including groups representing county builders, Realtors and the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association. He or his wife have donated $6,768.60 out of the $17,425 he has declared in campaign contributions. Many local doctors and health care organizations have also supported him.
"What I loved most about him is his business background and business experience," said one of those supporters, Dr. Carmen Nan. "I believe that Gene would be astute and candid and genuine and diplomatic. And challenge (superintendent Wayne Alexander) on the things that would steer the schools in the wrong direction."
On the contrary, said former candidate Robert Neuhausen, Yant would be the more effective brake on a superintendent whom all candidates have criticized as having poor management skills.
Yant has raised $18,310 in campaign contributions, and spent $12,524 of his own money on the race. Other contributors include fellow insurance agents, both from Hernando and other parts of Florida.
"During the whole campaign process, when I talked James, he was more focused on teachers and students," said Neuhausen, who placed third in the primary election for the board behind Magrini and first-place finisher Yant. "He's going to be more open to ideas than Gene would be."
Tom Marshall can be reached at [email protected] or (305) 848-1431.