NEW PORT RICHEY — Ordinarily, the District 4 seat on the Pasco County School Board would not be open this year.
But the resignation of Kathryn Starkey, who decided to pursue a seat in the Florida House of Representatives, made the post available two years ahead of schedule. Now five hopefuls appear on the Aug. 24 ballot.
They are real estate marketing executive Alison Crumbley, psychologist Steven Kanakis, hotel sales director Karen King, retired court reporter Billie Ann Stamatis-Kaleel and pastor John Tracy.
With such a large field, the likelihood of any single candidate winning more than half the vote in the primary is low. If that doesn't happen, the top two vote-getters will head to the Nov. 2 general election. The victor will serve out the remainder of Starkey's term and would have to stand for re-election in 2012.
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Alison Crumbley grew up in Pasco County and has put three daughters through the public school system.
A civic activist who has worked with School Board members including Starkey, she decided the timing was right to increase her participation in the system.
"My kids are at the age where I can devote the time to the School Board," Crumbley said. "Somebody has to do this job that has integrity, good intentions and that is smart enough to understand what the students need. I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly."
Crumbley said she would push for earlier interventions for at-risk students. She saw the value in this through the district's Take Stock in Children program, which her husband, Allen, helped establish.
"One of the neat things was, while the kids worked harder, the parents did, too," she said.
Crumbley called for a review of district textbook spending and bidding processes in areas where the board might find savings. Raising taxes should be last, she said.
Crumbley supports the proposed changes to the 2002 class size reduction amendment, saying that smaller classes have improved schools but financial reality has to play a part. She put her children in private school when classes were too big, but brought them back as things improved.
She also called for giving principals and teachers more authority to mete out discipline.
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Psychologist Steve Kanakis finds it interesting that so many people are running for School Board at a time when the finances are poor, morale is low and mandates keep coming.
But he has enjoyed working through crises as a member of the Pasco-Hernando Early Learning Coalition, which recently struggled through leadership problems. As part of the executive committee, Kanakis helped steer the board back toward doing its job for young children.
He said he would like to bring his skills to the School Board.
He said the School Board needs to find more consensus with the superintendent and staff. The problem, he said, is electing the superintendent.
"There is more conflict between the board and superintendent than there needs to be because Heather Fiorentino has more power than is ideal," he said.
An appointed superintendent would craft policy that pleases the board that has hired her. That also could lead to improved employee morale, he said. Electing the district CEO is "detrimental to the school system becoming great," he said.
Kanakis said the board should look for more sources of revenue, and mentioned charging more for student parking as one idea.
The father of a son with autism, Kanakis said he would be interested in seeing the district find better models of special education, particularly in the later years. He also said he would like to see the district work to infuse all students with a greater sense of what they can accomplish.
Growing up back East, he said, "everybody aspired to the Ivy League. I don't find that here."
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Karen King moved to Pasco County in 1992 and quickly started getting involved.
Her interest in education issues rose while on the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce education committee. As that commitment ended, she decided to run for the School Board.
One of King's priorities is to get more volunteers into the schools.
"Because of my ties with the community, I can help pull folks in," she said. "We can't ask the employees to do any more."
King also called for the district to do more business with local firms. She contended that the district's bidding processes are not well promulgated.
"Bring more local people to the table," she said, adding that she is not looking to offer preference to local companies. "Just give them the opportunity. … We should keep the money in Pasco County whenever we can."
King said she is not in favor of increasing taxes, and said the district should find ways to reduce spending, though she did not offer specifics.
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Billie Ann Stamatis-Kaleel has spent a lot of time inside the schools as a parent and business partner.
In 2009, she decided to run for School Board. She had never cast a vote in an election before. But "with what was going on in our country with all the spending, it was time to get involved."
Kaleel said her main concern with the school district has been wasted money. She spoke of hearing at a board meeting that several thousands of dollars worth of equipment had gone missing, for instance.
"Teachers are putting their hands in their own pocketbooks … to buy supplies. They don't even have funds for that," she said. "That's what made me decide to run for School Board."
Kaleel did not support increasing the local property tax rate by .25 mills for critical operating needs. She had no specific ideas to generate the $5.5 million that the tax would bring in.
"First, we need to start with fiscal accountability," she said. "I don't know what else is being wasted. I would definitely hone in on that."
The mother of a child with autism, Kaleel said early in the campaign that she was running "because our kids need a big voice to protect their rights to access and not be put in contained units."
She fought the district over the placement of her son during the 2009-10 school year. The case, which cost the district $170,000 to defend, was dismissed without going to a hearing.
In a subsequent interview, Kaleel said that special education issues are important, but stressed that finances are the driving force for her candidacy. The money, she said, needs to be focused on the classroom before all else.
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John Tracy is the newest arrival to Pasco County among the District 4 candidates. He said he has a growing desire to do more for his community.
President of the county's Faith and Family Values Republican Club, the pastor who counts Sarah Palin and Jeb Bush among his political heroes calls himself "a conservative candidate who believes strongly in God, family and country."
Tracy figured the School Board is among the best places for him to support families. And he said he would stand firm by his convictions on the issues regardless of the pressure placed upon him.
A musician, Tracy said he wants to protect arts education and other extras while also keeping budget cuts far from the classroom. He suggested privatizing services and reviewing contracts to save money, while also considering hiring a full-time grant writer and selling advertising as ways to raise revenue.
The School Board also should protest unfunded state and federal mandates, he said, and make tax increases a last resort.
Tracy said he is not out to change the curriculum. Still, he said, students should have a choice about whether they want to learn about evolution in science classes. He also called for making sure that religious references are not wiped out of history books.
Tracy spoke about student equality, saying that schools should be neutral ground for people of all political and religious beliefs. He said schools need to deal with drug problems, which are growing. And as a parent who has his children in a private church school, he backed school choice.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.