TRINITY — Addressing an audience of high school students recently, the two candidates for Pasco County School Board District 3 could not have come across more differently.
Developer-home seller Mike Ryan would pull the microphone over to his seat, lean forward and speak in low tones about his views on the issues at hand. Real estate agent Cynthia Armstrong, by contrast, would rise from her chair, stride to center stage and speak forcefully with microphone in hand.
As with their delivery, the two hoping to replace retiring veteran board member Cathi Martin have opposing views on a variety of key education issues. Among them:
• Charter schools: Ryan says they strengthen the public school system, while Armstrong contends the money spent on charters would be better used improving the mainstream public schools.
• Differential pay for teachers: Armstrong supports more pay for teachers who work in hard-to-fill jobs, whereas Ryan opposes the concept.
• Privatization of services: Ryan likes the idea of looking for savings by parceling out work that can be done cheaper by others. Armstrong says the district should keep control of employee training and performance to ensure the best service.
That's not to say, of course, that they differ on everything. Both support some form of performance pay and relaxation of the class size amendment. Both oppose the state mandating a set percentage of the district budget be allocated to the classroom, saying local needs should drive such decisions.
Ryan and Armstrong were the top finishers among the four candidates in the Aug. 24 election. Since neither got a majority of the votes needed to win, they face each other in a Nov. 2 runoff.
Armstrong, 55, of New Port Richey is quick to highlight the differences she sees between herself and Ryan.
"As a teacher I know what needs to happen in the classroom. As a business owner, I know how to get dollars into the classroom," said Armstrong, a retired science teacher who now sells real estate for her firm, Coldwell Banker F.I. Grey and Son. She stresses her experience as a key point of distinction. "The other area I think would separate me is my amount of community involvement. … I do think that sets me apart because it keeps me aware of what is going on in the community."
Ryan, 52, of Trinity is hesitant to speak about the contrasts.
"The bottom line is this: It's just like when we sell a house," said Ryan, broker/owner of Samuelsen Builders Realty. "We emphasize who we are and what we do. We don't talk about our competitors at all."
He focuses on business aspects of the district, noting that he worked with schools in a past job to help them discover ways to save money through more effective operations.
"What I am all about is to help our schools do more with less," Ryan said, adding that he planned to explore the district's spending to find areas for added efficiency. "If it means making a nuisance of myself, let it be. We can't do the same things we've always done before."
Ryan is a relative newcomer to Pasco County, having arrived in the early 1990s. He has mentioned this to highlight that unlike Armstrong, who moved here in the 1970s, he's an outsider who can bring ideas from other places to the district.
He speaks of the need to seek more grants from outside sources to bolster dwindling tax revenue. He talked up the idea of pursuing alternative sources of income such as land leases for cell phone towers, to achieve the same end. And he said the board needs to do more to fight unfunded mandates from the state and federal governments.
Armstrong doesn't talk as much about financial issues, though she offered some strong views about the need to replace property taxes as the main source of revenue for schools. She also spoke about the need to pay teachers more in order to attract and retain the best people in Pasco schools.
She focused more, though, on academic matters such as the need to offer more educational opportunities for students who are not headed to college. One of her primary goals would be to improve existing career academies and add more to the district curriculum.
She also has suggested that too many Pasco students are entering community college unprepared.
"I want to make sure the programs fit the students and they are not pushed so hard that they are going to have failure," said Armstrong, who has taught at Ridgewood High School and Pasco-Hernando Community College.
Armstrong also recalled a time when the Pasco school district was known for implementing pilot projects to try innovative ideas, including in areas such as performance pay. She said she would like to see the district again take the lead with programs and projects, in part to keep ideas local.
"If we don't get involved, then it's going to be shoved down our throats," Armstrong said.
Both candidates said they have ample time to devote to school district issues if elected. With private business matters well in hand, and no major family commitments, they each figured the timing was right for them to serve on the board.
The winner will serve a four-year term beginning in mid November.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.