Four younger candidates vie for open Pasco School Board seat

Published August 9 2018

The School Board District 5 race is wide open, after incumbent Steve Luikart’s retirement.

Whoever wins will represent a generational shift, with the oldest hopeful more than two decades younger than Luikart.

Hudson Middle social studies teacher Mike Aday is 32, Fox Hollow Elementary teacher Megan Harding is 28, and former Pinellas County teacher Kassie Hutchinson, a law student, is 27.

Their more limited life experiences led Luikart and other leaders to back Tara O’Connor, 45, a New Port Richey attorney with deep ties in the business, civic and school community.

O’Connor’s string of endorsements and campaign donations have led to criticism that she’s the crony candidate.

She said she has a mind of her own: "I’m not going to be a rubber stamp."

She focused on her community involvement, and said it seemed natural to seek a board post. Her interest was piqued, she explained, by leadership problems in her children’s schools.

"That’s when I started getting involved more and holding people accountable," she said.

O’Connor said she’d like to see more advanced academic opportunities in northwest Pasco high schools. She noted her son ran out of Advanced Placement courses at Fivay High.

On rezoning, O’Connor called for more collaboration between agencies, and said builders should face a greater burden to help resolve school crowding.

She backed the idea of letting students finish the school where they attend, but also noted overcrowded schools can’t run well.

"Parents have to appreciate that sometimes, the district doesn’t have a choice," she said, suggesting the district fill seats in existing programs.

She called for better communication with the community.

Kassie Hutchinson was first to announce for the seat.

A newcomer to Pasco County, she frequently refers to her Pinellas County experiences to discuss issues.

"It gives me a better approach," she explained.

Pinellas, though so close, appears more advanced than Pasco, Hutchinson said, pointing to magnet schools as examples. She said Pasco must stop pretending to be a small system, so it does not fail students.

"You don’t have to lose that feel to be more innovative," she said.

Hutchinson noted board meetings are not broadcast, and said it was symptomatic of the boards’ lack of accessibility that led to troubles with rezoning.

"We need to be creating every possible opportunity for the people in our county to learn about the opportunities available to them, and have access to them," she said.

School choice in Pasco is meaningless to many, she said, because several schools are frozen to new students. When the district opens new ones, she added, it doesn’t help needy students, because the campuses are in new developments serving wealthier families.

She called for the district to plan at least four years out, so families can prepare.

On budgets, Hutchinson prioritized equitable access to resources for all students and improved teacher pay. She said the district should not approve more charter schools until it can have enough money for teachers.

She also wants to toughen district anti-bullying rules.

Mike Aday and Megan Harding both grew up in Pasco, went to school here and returned to teach.

Each professes a deep love for teaching. Each wants to be on the board for different reasons.

After completing a graduate degree, Aday said, he saw the need to have greater influence over broader policy issues. He got more involved with the United School Employees of Pasco, gaining a different perspective that he said could help on the board.

His ideas include giving more autonomy back to principals.

"You need to find a way to really cut through the red tape," Aday said.

He wants to see more community services incorporated into schools, particularly those serving areas with greater needs.

Aday is a proponent for increased employee pay. Added taxes or debt might be the answer, he said: "There’s not a price point you could put, if it’s for the success of kids."

He also said the board needs to be more responsive to community concerns.

Aday acknowledged his DUI arrest shortly after announcing his campaign. He said he has done volunteer service to help repay his debt to society, and added he hasn’t had a drink since.

Harding said she wanted to be a teacher since she was 8.

Her first-grade teacher showed her the positive things the profession could be. She’s tried to be that person for her students.

But in the classroom, "I feel like I have a little voice," said Harding, who has an advanced degree in education. "Running for the School Board will give me a bigger voice."

While running, she said, she’s seen things she disagrees with in the district.

She doesn’t like the disrespect she sees coming from the administration. Or that many district administrators have never worked in a classroom.

She suggested the budget is filled with "inefficiencies," wasted time and resources. Rezoning lawsuits are an example, she said, because the district could have saved money had it planned in advance.

"I think it’s cool that our county is booming," she said. "But I don’t feel we’ve prepared for it."

Harding also wants to make it so teachers don’t have to spend their own money on supplies.

She said she was "neutral" about asking voters to increase taxes, though, contending it would take "a lot of convincing" to get such a measure passed.

Harding said she would seek to reduce district testing, noting there’s so much she couldn’t finish teaching her final math unit last year. She supported approving more charter schools.

Harding is backed by state Rep. Amber Mariano, county commissioner Jack Mariano (who works for Harding’s husband) and former state Sen. John Legg.

"I’m not scared to vote against," Harding said.

If no candidate wins a majority of votes cast in the primary, the two top will face off in November.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @jeffsolochek.