Insider vs. outsiders.
That, in a nutshell, describes the race for Pasco County School Board District 3.
Incumbent Cynthia Armstrong, seeking her third term, has ties deep in the business and civic world of the west side.
A former district teacher who also taught at Pasco-Hernando Community College, Armstrong owns and operates a Coldwell Banker real estate agency and has won elective office three times (once for Mosquito Control). She and her husband, Gregg, hold leadership positions in organizations, including the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce.
District officials have actively backed her campaign.
Challengers Heide Janshon and Meghan Hamer come from different sets of connections.
Janshon, a substitute teacher, ran a Mary Kay dealership when she became active in local education issues. She moved through issues, such as Common Core and testing, before turning to attendance zone revisions.
Hamer, who works at a thrift shop, moved to Pasco two years ago. She decided to run after a friend related a story of how her child was bullied at school and never heard from board members when she complained.
"I just think you need fresh eyes that aren’t entrenched in everything," Hamer said.
Facing her first challenge since being elected, Armstrong stands by her decisions.
"I have to always remind myself as a School Board member that I represent the entire county, so it’s important to look at the big picture," Armstrong said.
She did not support the idea floated by some to allow students to remain in their current schools until the highest grade level. She would, however, make an exception for rising high school seniors.
"The problem with that would be, we’d probably be running a bus just for one student," she said. "It’s cost-prohibitive to run busing that is not efficient."
Instead, Armstrong suggested adding magnet programs to under-used schools. She also supported increasing student address verification.
Armstrong rejected accusations that she ignored the public while making decisions. Not doing what people have requested is not the same as not listening, she said.
On budgets, Armstrong said the district must continue to trim spending. At the same time, she criticized lawmakers for not allowing districts to keep their tax rates level.
"Property values are going up. We are not allowed to realize that gain," she said.
She said she would consider asking voters for a property tax increase, if necessary.
Janshon positions herself as the candidate who knows today’s schools best. Though she announced her campaign in February, her activism dates back to 2014, giving her years of increasing publicity.
"I’ve been around. I didn’t just jump into the race," said Janshon, who ended her Mary Kay job to become a substitute teacher to gain insight.
She has consistently questioned district decisions and actions. As a result, she has not always had the best relationship with the district staff, some of whom have bristled at her approach.
Janshon said reducing local testing is a key plank of her platform. She opposes the district’s quarterly checks, calling them "micromanaging the teachers," and suggested the district’s end-of-course exams take up too much time, especially when paired with state tests.
Janshon helped organize groups who pushed to delay redrawing school attendance zones, calling upon the district to plan more carefully. That remains part of her campaign, as well.
If she can push through a policy that allows children to complete the highest grade level in their schools regardless of any rezoning, Janshon said, "then I will have achieved a lot."
She agreed magnet programs would help lessen the need for rezoning. She also criticized the Legislature for not properly funding schools, and said she would actively oppose corporate charter schools.
More than anything, Janshon promised to be independent: "I’m certainly not one that will vote just because I’ve been told to do so, or because I’ve given up."
Hamer got involved because of her friend’s concern. But she said she’s wanted to run for a school board since she was 18.
She’s studied youth ministry, and has worked with foster children and homeless teens.
"I feel the school board is a way to help a lot of students," Hamer said. "I think I’m the best person for the job. I’m the closest in age to our students."
Hamer said she will treat the position as a full-time job, saying it deserves 60-hour-per-week attention.
She called on the district to find more ways to cut spending outside the classroom. She wasn’t fully receptive to a tax referendum, saying "nobody wants to pay more in taxes."
Hamer supported a proposal to let students finish the schools where they begin, and agreed the board needs to be more receptive to the public.
Circling back to her friend’s complaint, Hamer said she also wants to have more bullying incidents face mandatory discipline.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.