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School Board will be stacked with newcomers making complicated policy decisions

LAND O'LAKES — With just seven words, Frank Parker changed the landscape for Pasco County's largest employer.

"I will not be running for reelection," the one-term School Board member announced at the end of Tuesday's board meeting.

Suddenly, the billion-dollar enterprise faced the prospect of a new majority running the show come November. Three-term member Cathi Martin already had declared her plan to retire from the five-person board, and recently reelected Kathryn Starkey has said she will resign to run for State House District 45.

Board chairman Allen Altman, whose term also expires this fall, has not declared his plans.

The changes come at a precarious time in Florida education. There's pressure from the state and federal governments to change teacher pay and evaluations, student assessments and academic requirements even as school districts face the likelihood that they'll have even less money to spend than in past years.

That's a tall order for a veteran board. For a group of newcomers, it could prove especially daunting.

"Even when I came on the board as a 17-year veteran of the school system thinking I knew it all, I found out I knew nothing when it came to that level," said Marge Whaley, the last of the "old guard" board members to retire after spending almost two decades together. "I had a lot to learn."

Joanne Hurley, who replaced Whaley in 2008, said it took her a year to get up to speed on the issues and laws the school district must deal with. Still, Hurley said, she did not worry about the board's ability to cope.

"Yes, we have some really heavy problems that are out there," she said. "But I don't worry about it, because we have to wait and see what the makeup of the board is going to be."

There's keen interest in who will win those seats, which carry a salary of $36,420 per year.

Already, five people have filed papers to pursue Starkey's District 4 post, while Martin's District 3 seat and Parker's District 5 slot have drawn just one hopeful each.

But there's more interest out there.

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino, a Republican, and Pasco Democratic Party chair Alison Morano, among others, say they have fielded inquiries from people interested in running for the seats.

"I don't see any battles at this time. However, that will change, I am certain," state Sen. Mike Fasano, a Republican who often wields a strong hand in Pasco politics, said in an e-mail to the Times.

Fasano expected the political parties to play a role during the campaigns after the fields are set, noting that the board will have a "huge impact" in school policy and property taxes for years to come. Morano agreed, saying that while the goal is not to politicize the positions, "I have found that even in a nonpartisan race there is no such thing as a nonpartisan campaign."

The races could draw opponents along any number of fault lines. It could materialize as Republicans vs. Democrats. Just as easily, though, it could turn into a campaign of those who support Fiorentino against those who back former assistant superintendent Ray Gadd, who still has lots of support in the community.

Fiorentino has said she has no plans to ask anyone to run for School Board. She said the most important thing a candidate should offer is a desire to put students first, and that if that remains the priority, disagreements will work themselves out.

Gadd shared that perspective.

"The only thing that I care about is, I'd like to see people run for that position that aren't politically motivated, that care about the quality of education in Pasco County," he said.

If the county can get high-quality candidates, then perhaps the fact that the board has almost no experience won't matter, said state Rep. John Legg, R-New Port Richey, a charter school founder and chairman of the House Pre-K-12 Policy Committee.

"I think new blood is a good thing for a school board," Legg said. "It brings new ideas. It brings new vision. … Healthy discussion is always good."

He counted on some of the "good professionals" of Pasco County to step up and run for the board, particularly because it has many critical issues to resolve.

From a practical standpoint, Fiorentino said, the new board will have some time to get its feet wet. By the time the members are sworn in, the board already will have set its budget and started the school year.

The existing board also has put in place a strong vision and plan to keep the district moving, she said.

More than that, she continued, the former board members likely will offer assistance to the new ones, just as past board members, including Whaley, have done. That will help with continuity, Fiorentino said.

"Our board is not walking away from us," she said.

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.

School Board will be stacked with newcomers making complicated policy decisions 02/17/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 17, 2010 9:02pm]
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