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Pasco School Board vacancy draws three activists

LAND O'LAKES — When November rolls around, the Pasco County School Board will lose its most veteran member in Marge Whaley.

Three civic activists — Kurt Conover and Joanne Hurley of Land O'Lakes, and Peter Hanzel of Wesley Chapel — seek to replace her.

Theirs has been a decidedly low-key campaign, with the candidates focusing on the issues more than each other, spending time meeting with community groups and boosting their name recognition.

On many of the key issues, they sound similar.

All speak of the need to boost teacher salaries, to improve the district's vocational education offerings and to deal more aggressively with growth. They cautiously criticize the unpopular teacher training program called Learning Focused Solutions. And they are willing to look at greater controls over student cell phones.

Yet as you listen to them speak, you note differences in their motivation and philosophy.

So far, Hurley has drawn the most endorsements and the most campaign cash. Even she has acknowledged that it could prove tough for anyone to win an outright majority in the nonpartisan primary. If that doesn't happen, the two top vote-getters will compete in the November general election.

Kurt Conover

Conover, 57, grew up in Pasco County and graduated from the local school district. Since then, he's been a community fixture.

Right out of high school, he got hooked up with the recreation center in New Port Richey, working his way up to parks and recreation director at age 22. In 1978, he ran unsuccessfully for the Pasco County Commission.

He joined a variety of civic organizations, often working his way into leadership roles. He also held jobs as the public face of Florida Power & Light, and currently for Bayonet Point Regional Medical Center.

Conover considers his longtime involvement a key to his candidacy.

"I love the community. I think it has a lot of potential. I don't think a lot of people, especially not from the area, see it like I do," he said. "I want to step up my commitment, and I don't think there's a better area I could get involved with than the future of our students."

Why the School Board?

Conover noted that in his economic development role, he has heard business leaders talk about the need to have a well-qualified work force.

"That was just kind of like, whoa. That's a really good thing to focus on, to help improve the quality of education and have a world-class work force. We're not just competing with St. Pete and Hillsborough and Pinellas anymore."

Conover also would like to see the district work more closely with the county to provide jointly used facilities such as parks and libraries. Perhaps the district could join with other government agencies for bulk purchasing, he added.

When it comes to spending, he suggested the board needs to set its priorities first and then determine where to budget the money. Employee pay cuts would be the last resort, Conover said.

Conover said he would consider asking voters to approve a local-option property tax to support school operations if state funding continues to erode: "That's one of those opportunities you need to do a lot of promoting, you need to do a lot of proof. They need to understand it's a good investment."

Peter Hanzel

Hanzel, 63, moved to Pasco County six years ago and takes pride in his independence.

"I have no commitments or obligations to any organizations out there other than the voters," he said. "I don't always march to the tune of the leadership. I think for myself."

He decided to run for School Board after a group he belonged to was told it would have to have a huge insurance policy to meet in a local elementary school. He contemplated a run in 2004, but looked to the Lexington Oaks Community Development District board instead.

Hanzel also stepped up his involvement in the Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce and the Wesley Chapel Republicans. Yet as a retired educator in both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, his interest in the School Board remained.

He wants to use the position as a bully pulpit to advocate for education policies at the state level: "As an elected official, it would carry additional weight."

Hanzel supports vouchers and merit pay, opposes unfunded education mandates from the Legislature, and wants to end the retention of third-graders who don't pass the FCAT, among other things.

He said he would support the idea of a local referendum on increasing education property taxes. He called for a tougher, more evenly enforced discipline program within the schools. And he opposed the idea of the school district providing affordable housing for employees.

Hanzel contends he is best equipped for the board because he hasn't spent his life here.

"My two opponents have lived here forever. I have had opportunities to see how school systems work in … Lexington, Ky., and Leavenworth, Kan., and Reno, Nev.," he said.

Joanne Hurley

Hurley, 63, has been a schoolteacher, a preschool director, a recycling coordinator and a community relations director for Florida's Turnpike.

She wants her last job before retirement to be on the School Board.

Her desire is to work with the system, which she considers strong but has its flaws, and try to improve it.

For instance, Hurley said she wants to see the district return to the time when it would run pilot programs rather than fully implementing new ideas without knowing whether they'll work.

"Let's have some accountability before we dive into something new," she said.

She also called for the board to more strongly assert its constitutional role, and not cede so much power to the superintendent.

"Ultimately, it's the School Board that has the decisionmaking authority and has the accountability to the voters for the budget," she said. "So I think they should take a more active role. The elected superintendent is fine, but it has defined duties."

Unlike her opponents, Hurley has taken a strong stance against three proposed constitutional amendments dealing with education. The cumulative effect of all three passing could be "devastating," she said, adding that the district needs to educate the public about the possibilities.

She also backed the idea of a vote for a property tax to support school operations.

Hurley said she has no plans, if elected, to rush into the boardroom and start making motions. Rather, she said, she wants to infuse the board with a philosophy that it must tackle the big issues and make tough choices.

"My agenda is to build on what is working and to get rid of what isn't," she said. "And I want to do it in a way that is accountable."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Pasco School Board vacancy draws three activists 08/17/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 19, 2008 1:56pm]
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