The four finalists who interviewed Wednesday to become the next superintendent of schools in Hernando County have decades of experience in Florida schools. They're all longtime administrators, former principals and teachers. They've implemented programs, managed money and memorized a lifetime of educational acronyms and jargon.
They've all come close to becoming superintendents in the past, just missing out.
This could be their shot.
For nearly four hours, Hernando School Board members peppered the candidates, one by one, with questions in an effort to suss out differences and see who might be the best choice for the district.
Among the topics were some of the usual ones: top budget priorities, management style, past accomplishments and vision. Board members asked about bullying, adult technical education and the finalists' vision for technology.
Each candidate emphasized different areas, drawing from their strengths.
Hernando assistant superintendent Sonya Jackson, 49, called on her extensive knowledge of the school district as a top administrator.
Ken Pritz, 55, the county's other assistant superintendent, drew on his more than three decades in the Hernando schools and spoke about how he had improved dramatically as a candidate since he applied the last time.
Rebecca Fleck, 58, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in Highlands County, spoke in great depth about technology and showed that she had clearly spent time researching the job before the interview.
Diana Greene, 49, a former deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction, emphasized a track record in Marion County of turning around schools, improving graduation rates and helping out needy students.
Each finalist had specific ideas for how to make Hernando the best district in Florida.
Jackson, assistant superintendent of support services in Hernando, said a superintendent must first look at student performance.
"What I would do is look at the data as it comes in, work with the district leadership team, look for patterns and trends, share that information with school-based administration," she said.
Jackson said she would monitor assessment and work with the staff to develop action plans to meet goals.
Pritz said the district can improve by getting rid of the "silo mentality" — borrowing a phrase from superintendent Bryan Blavatt, which two of the other candidates also used.
He said he was able to help turn around Hernando High School from a "D" to a "B" school because he and his staff were able to expose it to new ideas and a new way of doing things.
"I think it's not anything different here," he said.
He said the district is already starting to see people share more because of some of the efforts he's helped put in place as assistant superintendent of teaching and learning.
Pritz said he also wants to see the district's strategic plan and school plans become a "living document," used to address school needs, monitor progress and measure goals.
Fleck said she feels the way to create the best school district is to treat it as one entity.
"One of the things that as a superintendent I believe is very important is to bring unity to the district," she said. "My goal, my vision, as the superintendent is to bring our administrators together so that they can share best practices and that those best practices will be applied."
She spoke of setting a standard for schools and bringing each to that level.
Greene said she would work to make the Hernando district the best by ensuring "the personnel that are standing in front of our children are the best."
"I'm going to invest in the people who are here and help them be the very best," she said.
She spoke about the importance of putting the right resources in the right place, quoting a poem to make her point.
"A basketball in Michael Jordan's hands is worth $18 million," she said. "A basketball in my hand is worth $18.95."
Each of the candidates also addressed bullying.
Jackson said she would keep an open line of communication, involving students, parents and the community.
Pritz said the district's current policy is "solid," but he would ensure it's being enforced and that there is accountability.
Said Fleck: "It's one thing to say you have a zero-tolerance policy; it's another thing to make sure it gets implemented."
She said her approach would be a mix of enforcing the rules, counseling and parental involvement.
Greene offered a host of ideas pulled from her time in Marion County that she said reduced the instances of bullying, including the use of a special curriculum, a positive behavioral support program and a hot line that students can call.
The two internal candidates, Jackson and Pritz, gave some of the most specific answers.
Both said there's a need to improve some of the district's facilities.
Jackson said the district could benefit from increasing the number of district-level staffers, given the small size of the staff.
Pritz addressed the "definite separation" between the east and west sides of the county and the need to remedy that. He also spoke of the district's magnet schools and some of the community's and School Board members' concerns with those.
"That's something that I'm not going to shy away from," he said.
All of the candidates spoke of their desire to work in Hernando County.
"This is the only position I applied for," said Fleck. "I did so because I believe we are a very good match."
"I'm in it for the long run," she added.
Greene said she's "not looking to make Hernando County my stepping stone" or a gateway to a higher-paying job.
She believes that she can help make Hernando one of the top school districts in the state.
"Hernando County has the potential," she said. You have the right environment to make that happen."
The interviews wrap today with finalist Lori Romano, 41, of Martin County. The School Board is scheduled to select a new superintendent Tuesday to replace Blavatt, who is retiring in June.
Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: HernandoTimes.