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Hernando School Board confronts budget, leadership gaps

Superintendent Wayne Alexander talks on Wednesday to Fox Chapel Middle School students about committing to a cause and following through to make changes. After announcing his departure to the board, he said he planned to give members a list of budget-cutting options and to build the budget for next fall.

RON THOMPSON | Times

Superintendent Wayne Alexander talks on Wednesday to Fox Chapel Middle School students about committing to a cause and following through to make changes. After announcing his departure to the board, he said he planned to give members a list of budget-cutting options and to build the budget for next fall.

BROOKSVILLE — The weight of the world landed on the shoulders of the Hernando County School Board on Wednesday morning.

It wasn't any one thing — not the weight of a slumping economy and looming budget cuts, or the sudden announcement that their superintendent planned to resign. It was all of those things together and more.

"Right now, we have no chief financial officer, we have no assistant superintendent, and our superintendent has said his wish is to leave July 1," said Chairwoman Dianne Bonfield. "It's not pretty. We're in crisis now."

Hours after Alexander's comments at a Tuesday board meeting, board members were still sifting through their options.

On Tuesday, they'll convene to consider how — or whether — to let their superintendent out of a three-year contract after just two years.

Members said they sympathized with his situation, with a messy visitation dispute involving his new wife's children that will force him to relocate to New England.

"I do wish you well," Sandra Nicholson told Alexander. "But as far as the district is concerned, we have a contract and we have to work out the bugs."

She later said she hoped the district could find a replacement — whether on an interim or permanent basis — before July.

"Hopefully it won't take that long," she added.

Well before a search is under way, the board will have to grapple with an estimated $6 million shortfall in the current budget, and cutbacks for next year that could exceed 10 percent.

But they'll have to do it without the help of veteran finance director Deborah Bruggink, who left the district last month.

Candidates for that position were being interviewed Wednesday by a district search committee, but Alexander wouldn't venture a guess as to when a new director will wade into the district's finances.

Alexander said he planned to give the board a "laundry list" of $5 million to $20 million in budget-cutting options to consider at a Feb. 17 workshop. And he plans to build the budget for next fall until the day he steps down.

"The goals of what we're putting together is to maintain the sanctity of the classroom and to keep people employed," he added. "Keeping as many people as possible working is a priority, and the classroom to me is sacred."

But progress on that mission could easily be delayed if talks on Alexander's contract and his successor get complicated.

Under the terms of his contract, he can leave early upon mutual agreement and with 30 days' pay. Without that agreement, he would be in breach of his contract and obligated to pay the costs of a search for a replacement.

"If we agree on a date, we're all fine," Alexander said.

Bonfield said it was possible the board and its superintendent could part ways quickly.

"Once he gives his resignation, his intent, it's very possible within the contract that the board says you have 30 days, that's it," she said.

But Bonfield said she was grateful for Alexander's service, despite what some have described as an overly forceful management style.

"He acknowledges some of these things in his own personality," she added. "But when I look at the short time he's been here, a lot has happened, and a lot of good things for the students of this county."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando School Board confronts budget, leadership gaps 02/04/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 4, 2009 8:04pm]
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