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School Board candidates have something to say

The race for the District 4 seat on the Pinellas School Board is between a teacher, a chiropractor, a former journalist and a business owner.

Each says he or she is best suited to improve the system. Here are profiles of the candidates.

Chris Hardman

Hardman, 55, teaches algebra and business math at Countryside High School. He is making his second bid for a School Board seat after finishing behind board member Nancy Bostock and then-board member Mary Russell in the 2006 election.

He returns with some of the same themes he advanced two years ago — improving teacher morale, addressing the district's graduation rate and his experience in business and education.

Before Hardman began teaching in 2002, he spent 20 years selling medical and pharmaceutical products. "That combination, I think, would be very valuable" on the board, he says.

As a district employee, he says he has "a good feel for what's working and not working."

He says the district needs to restructure its annual seniority-based raises, called "step increases," which tend to be more generous to late-career teachers than those in their first 10 years.

"That contributes to a drop in employee morale," he says.

Hardman also wants the district to end its 7:05 a.m. start time for high schools.

He says it would be premature for the district to push ahead now with a proposal by the Pinellas Education Foundation to decentralize the system, giving principals, teachers and parents more control over schools.

The proposal is based on a "school-based management" system in Okaloosa County, where student performance increased.

"I don't think we need to be married to following what Okaloosa did in every instance," Hardman says.

Steven Isbitts

Isbitts, 39, has announced several proposals in the early weeks of his campaign.

The first was a plan to reduce costs by using school bus air conditioners less in the mornings and offering drivers incentives to save fuel.

Later, he said the district needed to better promote math programs in the summer, when skills can erode.

He has said the district needs to be more creative about raising revenue, perhaps by selling tasteful ads on school buses.

Some School Board members say their job is to make policy and let administrators run the district. Others involve themselves in the system's inner workings. Isbitts is of the latter school.

"A healthy district has a tremendous give and take" between the board and the superintendent, he says. "If a board member wants to go a little deeper, that's why they're elected."

He adds that it should be done with respect.

Isbitts works in the sales division at PODS Enterprises Inc. But before that, he was a reporter for the Tampa Tribune. He says his experience covering Pinellas schools in 2003 opened his eyes to flaws in the bureaucracy.

One problem: The 7:05 a.m. start time for high schools. It's an obvious learning barrier that should be corrected immediately, Isbitts says. "Everybody knows it's wrong."

He also says the district needs to market itself more aggressively to compete with private schools.

Ken Peluso

Peluso, 51, is a Palm Harbor chiropractor who has served on numerous civic and local government boards. He points to Pinellas' budget woes, its declining enrollment and its stagnant graduation rate, saying the district must act quickly to change the way it delivers education.

"What we have simply is not working," he says. "It's time to act, and decisively act."

To that end, he strongly supports the education foundation's proposal to decentralize schools.

But Peluso says, "I don't support doing exactly what they did in Okaloosa County, because we're different."

To address Pinellas' 67 percent graduation rate and the continuing performance gap between minority and white students, he says the district should expand efforts already under way in high schools to make subject matter more "relevant" to kids' lives. He says that effort needs to spread to younger students and lead to more progressive teaching methods that go beyond lecturing.

He says he would push to "untie the hands of teachers — let the teachers be creative doing what they know and love to do."

Peluso emphasizes his experience as current chairman of the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County, which administers a $51-million budget.

"I have been on enough boards to know it is not my function to go below the policy line," he says.

Working on a board "cannot be taught. It has to be lived."

Robin Wikle

Like other candidates, Wikle, 45, says the proposal to decentralize Pinellas schools needs more study. But she has a strong hunch the system would benefit.

As a member of the Tarpon Springs High School Advisory Council, Wikle saw the problems a centralized bureaucracy can cause. When the SAC wanted to buy an electronic sign for the front of the school, Wikle got a price of $25,000 from one company. But the principal said they had to go through a contractor pre-approved by the district. His price was twice as much.

"That kind of stuff disillusioned me," said Wikle, who worked nine years for the school system and now co-owns Coldwell Banker Wikle Properties with her husband.

Her experience as a district employee, a parent, a community activist and a graduate of Pinellas schools makes her a well-rounded choice for the board, she says. "I've been there and I know how the system works."

Wikle applauds the district's plans to put "Centers of Excellence" in every high school, allowing students to graduate with certification in a trade. But she says each high school should have more than one center.

If students don't feel school relates to their life, "they're going to move on," Wikle says.

She also proposes that the district find ways to give struggling students more "one-on-one time" with adults at schools, perhaps by freeing guidance counselors from paperwork.

"That's what I think will help the graduation rate," she says.

>>FAST FACTS

About District 4

Term: Four years

Boundaries: Encompasses most of Clearwater, Largo and mid-county beach communities

Election date: Aug. 26

Notes: Position held for 12 years by board member Jane Gallucci, who is running for a County Commission seat.

School Board candidates have something to say 07/15/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 18, 2008 11:02am]

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