BROOKSVILLE — The paths of the two candidates for the School Board's District 3 seat started to converge one year ago.
In one of the most pivotal moments of her term, incumbent Dianne Bonfield passed the chairman's gavel during an August board meeting and made a motion to begin talks with embattled superintendent Wayne Alexander to arrange his early departure.
It's about time, Keane Chapman recalls thinking. The 41-year-old father of two Hernando County students and the husband of a teacher figured Alexander's departure should have happened well before that. But the board mishandled the issue from there, Chapman said.
"I decided to run when Dr. Alexander was manipulating his exit out of here," he said. "And when he left here with a fat severance package … I'm like, I have to jump in and do this."
The district has struggled over the last few years, says Chapman, a national sales manager for Alumi-Guard Inc. in Brooksville. "At best we've been stagnant and at worst we've backslid," he said.
He has not been shy about criticizing Bonfield for what he sees as her role in that slide. He maintains the School Board failed to properly manage Alexander, noting that Bonfield was chairperson during the latter part of Alexander's tumultuous two-year tenure.
"And in my opinion, (she was) his biggest supporter, and bears much of the responsibility for the things he brought to this school system, or didn't bring," Chapman said.
Bonfield, 61, said the board has tackled plenty of controversial issues such as the Alexander situation since she unseated veteran board member and current County Commissioner John Druzbick in 2006.
The retired Hernando County teacher said she helped lead the district and has delivered on several planks of her first platform. She says her education background, her roots here, and an ability to dedicate full-time attention to the job make her the best choice.
She bristled at Chapman's assertion that she has not spent enough time in schools. After fighting a successful battle with cancer last year that kept her home much of the time, Bonfield says she is ready to be as active in schools as she was during the first three years of her term.
"I have been committed to my position," she said. "It is a full-time job, and I have made it so. I can assure you that when I've made a vote, blood, sweat and tears have gone into that. "
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As far as Bonfield was concerned, Alexander had honored his contract by properly notifying her that he was looking for jobs in New England to be with his wife and stepchildren, who still lived there.
Alexander had made plenty of enemies in his two years here and pressure on the board was mounting to sever ties with him. For Bonfield, though, the critical moment came after she learned that Alexander had failed to inform the board on two key issues: the no-zero grading policy, and the presence of nonresident — and therefore ineligible — students at Nature Coast Technical High.
"I noticed his command, his leadership of the district, was waning,'' she said. "He lost the reins. I totally lost faith in him."
But Bonfield said she did not want to leave the district open to a lawsuit, so she helped negotiate a deal that cost the district about $19,000 and gave Alexander a little more than $14,000.
She defended her decision later to resign the chairmanship rather than sign a contract for assistant superintendent Sonya Jackson to take over as interim. Bonfield said Jackson, like Alexander, failed to keep the board informed on the Nature Coast and no-zero grading policy. Moreover, Bonfield didn't want someone in the interim position who was gunning for the full-time job.
"I could not compromise my ethics," she said.
Bonfield acknowledged that her beliefs have landed her on the losing end of big votes. She was willing last year, for example, to fight a lawsuit from two of those ineligible Nature Coast students but lost on a 3-2 vote.
She was on the losing end of a vote in 2007 to reject federal grant money for a program to test the urine of students involved in competitive athletic programs for drugs.
She was the lone dissenting vote in 2008 to establish the Quest Academy for the Gifted at Explorer K-8, arguing the board should have surveyed parents on their interest in the program, or started slowly with just the middle grades. Last year, Bonfield was absent for the vote that moved the center from Explorer to Challenger K-8 but said later she likely would have joined board member John Sweeney in his opposition.
She was the sole opponent in last year's vote to temporarily reduce school impact fees to help stimulate the local building industry. And she opposed the new school start times that take effect this year, citing concerns about younger children waiting for buses in the dark on winter mornings.
Bonfield joined her colleagues in voting down the extra quarter-mill levy increase in the last two years and agreed to put the issue to the voters this November. She said she strongly believes there should be some type of middle school sports fee with adjustments for low-income families, but would be unlikely to support a districtwide activity fee for all students.
Bonfield campaigned on removing portables and establishing mentor programs, and the district has been successful in both those endeavors, she said. The same goes for efforts to improve technology and curricula at many schools that had fallen behind, she said. If elected, her goal for the next four years is to reduce or eliminate the number of double classrooms and to ensure a fair and smooth rezoning process ahead of the opening of the new K-8 school in Weeki Wachee next fall. She wants better mentor opportunities for staffers to develop leaders from within.
Bonfield is pushing for an internal audit of non-core positions such as assessment teachers to see if some can be shifted to teach core subjects, and she is calling for a review of the district's education software to make sure the district is getting its money's worth.
"I have the courage to make the tough decisions," she said. "I will be there as a servant to our community, to our staff, to our parents, and to those community members who don't have children in the system."
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Chapman says his business acumen, leadership abilities, communication skills and experience as a parent co-chair of the School Advisory Committee at Explorer make him the better candidate.
"What I want to do is rekindle the spirit of innovation that helped us to have an innovative and forward-looking school system in the first place," he said.
Chapman said Bonfield's decision to resign the chairmanship showed poor leadership. He agrees the district needs to do a better of job of nurturing future administrators and superintendents.
"Successful organizations promote from within and I do think we've lacked a focus of developing our leaders," he said.
Though state officials noted this year that Hernando spends less per-pupil on administration than any other Florida district, Chapman still maintains the assistant superintendent position is unnecessary. And he expressed concern that the district went from a reported $6 million deficit to a balanced budget within weeks. He says that indicates financial planning needs to be improved.
Chapman, who garnered the endorsement from the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, said he would have opposed the quarter mill levy this year but might have approved putting the question on the ballot had the district actually faced such a large budget deficit. He vows not to hesitate to ask the teachers union to forgo its automatic step raises next year if the budget picture is dire.
He said he would have supported the new start times and has not ruled out support for a sports or activity fee.
Chapman's wife, Kelly, taught general education at Explorer last year — co-teaching with some 40 students — and the couple's two children attended the Quest Academy for the Gifted that had been located there. Chapman said he worked hard to persuade the School Board to move the Quest program out of Explorer to ease overcrowding at the school and allow the gifted center to thrive.
Chapman's children are now in the general magnet program at Challenger, and his wife teaches general education there. Some people have asked him about the potential conflict of joining the School Board when his wife is teacher. He said it's a valid concern that his family will approach ethically and professionally. He noted other board members have similar situations — Bonfield's daughter, for example, is a secretary for the district.
"I think we're prepared to handle it," he said, adding that the couple has agreed that Kelly would not pursue an administrative position during his tenure on the board.
Chapman frequently travels for work but maintains that would not be an obstacle. "I will be able to carve out more than enough time to be successful," he said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.