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Pasco students press School Board candidates at forum

WESLEY CHAPEL — Ben Blommel wanted answers, and he wasn't about to be satisfied with what he considered doublespeak.

The Wesley Chapel High School senior used his time at the mike during a Kids Vote forum Thursday evening to press Pasco School Board candidates over whether, if elected, they would return some of their board salary to pay for other operating needs.

The first few hopefuls offered fairly direct yes or no responses. Then District 3 candidate Cynthia Armstrong launched into a lengthy commentary.

Blommel jumped in, calling Armstrong nonresponsive and demanding a simple yea or nay. "I felt some were not answering our questions," he said later.

Rather than being offended, like some grumbling audience members, Armstrong sounded upbeat about the interchange.

"I welcome those students," she said of kids like Blommel, who challenge authority, ask tough questions and insist on straight talk. "At least I know they were listening and paying attention. I love this kind of thing."

After so many events with adults, the former teacher said, it was refreshing to "get in front of the people I'm serving and talk with them."

It was a theme sounded by each of the candidates who attended the two-hour event at the Wesley Chapel High performing arts center.

"It's great to hear all your concerns and questions," District 3 candidate Mike Ryan told the audience of about 150 students. "It has been a privilege to be here."

Before, during and after the formal question-and-answer session, the students barraged the candidates with issues that affect them in school.

Several wanted to know whether more foreign languages could be offered for study. A few asked about taxes. One student surveyed the candidates on their support of a proposal to remove chocolate milk from school cafeterias, suggesting teens in high school are perfectly able to make their own decisions.

Candidates encouraged the students to speak out on issues important to them.

"Your input needs to be listened to," said District 5 hopeful Mark Swartsel. "We need to accept that."

District 5 candidate Steve Luikart agreed.

"My goal is to base all my decisions on what is in your best interest," said the retired high school assistant principal, who recommended the students write letters and make demands on decisionmakers.

Pasco High School junior Rebecca Eitnier, who raised concerns about how class size rules are threatening her Advanced Placement math class, appreciated such feedback.

"I liked how they stressed the fact that everyone has a voice," she said. "Students do have a voice. It's just a matter of using it."

Eitnier expressed some disappointment that many of the questions raised Thursday did not pertain directly to topics the School Board can do anything about. Other parts were pure politics, she said, making the forum drag.

Still, she found the evening interesting and worth attending.

So did Land O'Lakes High senior Ryan Lane.

He admitted coming at first just to get extra credit for a class.

"But I thought it was very insightful," he said. "I got some good information."

Lane isn't old enough to vote yet, nor were the majority of students in the crowd. But that didn't matter to the candidates or the students, many of whom recommended that such discussions should occur more often.

School Board members "should visit schools more and talk to students more," Blommel said. "They always talk about what they think we need … I just think they could listen to us better."

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

Pasco students press School Board candidates at forum 09/24/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 24, 2010 8:33pm]
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