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Tight times prompt tough Hernando County School Board race

Blame Jim Malcolm for deciding to retire after 16 years of service, or the arrival of a new superintendent, or the worsening economy and the prospect of tough budgets.

Whatever the reason, voters have seen a tough contest this summer for a single seat on the Hernando County School Board. When they go to the polls Aug. 26, they'll find three candidates with a range of experience and views.

All three are promising change: better management, better communication, a stronger handle on the all-important purse strings. With the budget down and student enrollment poised to surge past 23,000, the stakes have rarely been higher.

Gene Magrini: Where his opponents see a strained school budget, 43-year-old Gene Magrini sees room to cut administrative and other costs and give teachers a raise of up to 4.2 percent this year.

Including benefits, that's nearly $6-million of the $170-million operating budget, about the same size as the combined maintenance and human resources budgets, said finance director Deborah Bruggink.

Magrini would look for waste and unnecessary administrative expenses to find that money. He has little patience with superintendent Wayne Alexander's claim that central office staff is already stretched to the breaking point. "Everyone says that about their job," he said.

A consultant and former administrator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Sunshine Youth Services, he says he has more experience managing budgets than either of his opponents.

He attended Rutgers University in the 1980s, but entered the working world before finishing his degree.

In 2005 he completed his bachelor's degree in business administration from a distance-learning school, California Coast University. That school earned its accreditation nine months prior to his graduation, after being described as a "diploma mill" in a 2004 report by the federal government. Magrini said he was unaware of the situation.

He views the proper role of the School Board as one of corporate oversight, rather than detailed management of educational matters. "I realized I don't have to be an educator or overeducated, that mind-set," he said.

As for experience, Magrini cites his chairmanship of several school advisory committees. As the parent of three school-age daughters, he has come to value the role of teachers, and would protect them from unnecessary administrative interference or mandates.

"I believe the greatest way a child can be reached is to have some flexibility," Magrini said. "I understand accountability; I'm all for it. But we have to strike a balance."

Robert Neuhausen: Maybe it's the engineer in him, but Robert Neuhausen sees a lot of flaws in the School Board's performance.

"Why are we focusing on trivial things?" he asked, referring to the board's policy troubles over the dress code. "I don't think I remember a 10-minute discussion all year at the School Board about the dropout rate."

Neuhausen, 40, served as an electronics technician in the Navy and earned an engineering degree from the University of South Florida. Now he plies his trade at Sparton Electronics, east of Brooksville.

He sees missed opportunities for the school district to forge links with area businesses, and said it should do a better job of helping students find their passion at school.

"You've got to find things that trigger them and get them excited, or we're going to lose them," Neuhausen said.

But it's his volunteer work in Scouting, the YMCA and his children's schools that has opened his eyes to the education climate in Hernando County.

Neuhausen praised superintendent Alexander's decision to shuffle the leadership at Hernando High after its failure to make sufficient improvement in test scores. But he said teachers are fearful of what he called Alexander's aggressive leadership style.

"They are honestly scared of him," Neuhausen said. "You should not be scared of your supervisor."

In his view, the School Board needs to focus its spending more tightly on core education priorities. And it must do a better job of communicating with the public and representing its interests.

"Why can't we have School Board meetings once a month in the schools?" he said. "Go to the people. To me, they're making decisions with no input at all from the community."

James Yant: James Yant is running a nearly single-issue campaign. He repeats it like a mantra.

"There's going to be less money," he said. "There's going to be a need for the school budget to be cut."

As the founding owner of James C. Yant Insurance in Spring Hill, he sees the finances of it. As a former high school and college counselor, he fears the impact of economic hard times on a generation of students.

"I'm looking at it from a business as well as an educational perspective," said Yant, 61. "If people aren't spending and property taxes are cut, where is the money going to come from?"

By his reckoning, the School Board must come to grips with the fact that state support for public education is dropping, and find ways to make up for the lost funding. For starters, he suggests buying more fuel-efficient school buses and building road overpasses for children who live near schools.

He has experience at the helm of large educational systems, having served as a member and chairman of the Pasco-Hernando Community College board of trustees. He holds a master's degree in counseling from Florida A&M University.

But his own educational philosophy is measured one student at a time. Yant is a believer in the power of early intervention for at-risk students, and finding ways to engage parents.

"You have to realize, some parents don't have a lot of education," he said. "When they go (to their child's school), they're defensive; they go to make a point."

He supports many of superintendent Alexander's initiatives, but says the district's new leader has intimidated many employees. The central office has to walk a fine line between helping schools and making them less effective, he said.

"If something's not working, fix it," Yant said. "But switching people around when they have done sufficiently is not the answer."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

What the candidates have to say on the issues

We asked the candidates to respond to several questions that are on the minds of Hernando voters as they go to the polls.

The questionsGene Magrini

Robert Neuhausen

James Yant

Is there enough money in the budget for teacher and staff raises this year? He believes there's enough money in the budget for teacher raises of up to 4.2 percent this year, if the School Board aggressively cuts waste and overspending.He sees no room in the budget for significant teacher raises this year, but he advocates hiring additional staff to serve as public liaisons — perhaps as many as one for every school.He predicts tough budget times ahead, given the depressed economy and state funding cuts, and sees little chance of substantial teacher raises this year.
Do you support the district's latest "uniform dress code" policy?He supports a basic district dress code, but believes any uniforms or specific clothing requirements should be made with the backing of parent votes at individual schools.He supports the idea of a dress code, but believes school administrations and principals should bear responsibility for formulating specific details.He's not opposed to a dress code, but said it could produce a backlash if badly implemented. "This could be a good idea," he said, "but the advantages must be weighed against the negatives."
What is the largest single challenge facing Hernando schools?The budget shortfall and the need to re-examine budget priorities are the board's most significant challenges, he said. Finding cost savings and raising teacher salaries must be its top goals.Rising costs and plummeting revenues are the district's greatest challenge, he said, and the board must curb its habit of loose spending. "I am bewildered at the amount of money that is spent on noncritical items, while teachers' morale continues to plummet," he said.He said the county must face up to the reality of steep declines in state funding for public education, and figure out ways to replace such money with local funds, volunteering, and in-kind support.

Tight times prompt tough Hernando County School Board race 08/16/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 18, 2008 12:48pm]

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