The crowded race for the District 5 seat on the Hernando County School Board gives voters a choice of four distinct candidates.
Cynthia Moore is the incumbent, with decades of experience in the district and a strong track record of volunteering in the schools. Susan Duval brings the perspective of a longtime school district administrator with a reputation for running one of Hernando's best schools. Robert Neuhausen is an active parent with a belief that the schools need to communicate better. Anna Liisa Covell, an avowed outsider, believes the board hasn't done its job and needs a new look.
Take your pick.
Voters will have their say during the Aug. 26 primary. Should no candidate get more than 50 percent of the primary vote, the top two finishers will face each other in a runoff election in November.
Moore, 72, says the reason she is running again is simple.
"I feel that I can make a difference to the children in the school system," she said. "I feel that I have made a difference."
Moore is a frequent volunteer at Brooksville Elementary School and is known for having donated money to students and parents when she sees a need. She said she has paid for field trips, shoes, electricity bills.
As a board member, she said, she counts the partial restoration of busing among her biggest accomplishments. Earlier this year, she helped reinstate busing for students who live between 1 and 2 miles from Hernando's nine elementary schools.
She also cast the deciding vote that connected the school district with county government on the joint penny sales tax referendum that will go before voters in November.
After weighing the decision carefully, Moore said, she ultimately decided to team up with the county because she felt the district would substantially benefit from a number of county projects, including some that would add more sidewalks around schools.
Moore said she wants to find more money to repair schools, continue to increase busing for students who live near schools and expand the number of school resource officers. She also would like to see more vocational education offerings.
Ultimately, she said, she wants to see the district regain its A grade and the school buildings to be in good shape.
"I think that can only be done by putting strong administrators in schools," she said.
She said she thinks superintendent Lori Romano is doing a good job and has been able to come into the district and make big changes.
Covell, 63, believes the current School Board has failed to do its job.
Her evidence? The decline in state grades at several district schools.
"I really and truly believe in my heart that (board members) aren't doing what's necessary for the schoolchildren of Hernando County," she said.
Covell said she was disappointed with the recent decline in school grades at many of the schools. And she doesn't think the board is worried enough about the situation.
"I don't think the School Board members are even very active about what they need to do in the school system," she said.
She said she doesn't believe the board monitors the administrative staff closely enough and she doesn't think Romano hit the ground running in her first year.
One of Covell's biggest criticisms of the board: its decision to partner with the county on the joint sales tax. She said she can't support it now.
Covell argues that merging the district's plan to ask for the renewal of a half-cent tax with a new half cent for the county takes away voters' choice. She believes the revenue from a county sales tax increase could have been covered by impact fees on new construction.
"It's unfortunate they've tied it together with the School Board — it's really going to impact the county," Covell said.
She also believes School Board members are not being proactive, saying they could have done more to get impact fees restored for education. She said they could have gotten on the phone with Hernando's state representatives to bypass the County Commission, which has the ultimate say.
"But nobody did anything," she said. "All they did was cry and complain."
As a board member, Covell said, she would use her background and business experience to bring the district up to an A grade and improve the budget outlook. She would push for a better system of oversight over the schools, do a full audit of the school system and do a better job of explaining the Common Core academic standards.
Before Susan Duval, 67, retired from the school district this summer, she had already submitted her paperwork to volunteer. She said she wanted to give back to the system that gave her so much over the years. It's is this same sense of duty that motivated her to run for the School Board, she said.
Duval, who arrived in the district in 1969, has worked in many of the schools as a teacher and an administrator. She retired in June after finishing an 11-year stint as principal at Springstead High.
She believes the No. 1 issue facing the district is its finances, which has led to several years of 10 percent spending cutbacks at each of the schools.
"We need to have the reserves built back up to a comfortable level, to an appropriate level," she said. "That's going to take a great deal of effort, thought and action."
Duval, noting that she is not afraid to make difficult decisions, said she also would work to pass policy that would lead to more academic success, including increased professional development for teachers.
She said board members need to speak in a unified voice to Tallahassee to improve its finances. The board, along with other school boards, needs to continuously deliver a message of great financial need.
"That, given the actions of the legislative body of the last few years, is going to be incredibly difficult at this point," she said. "But, again, you don't give up. You keep the message going."
She said district leaders can never give up speaking for students.
Duval said she's worried that the penny sales tax will not pass, which would be a significant blow to the school system. She said she's seen how badly the district needs the money.
"I've never seen it in such financial tightrope as it is right now," she said. "There has been no money coming in for capital outlay. … You have all kinds of facilities that need to be maintained, and the money is not there to do it."
Robert Neuhausen, 46, hasn't changed his beliefs or core message since he ran for School Board during the last election cycle. It's still all about communication — with parents, students and the community as a whole.
"We have to be able to talk to each other," he said. "We have to get the information to the right people. Everyone seems to be working in silos."
Neuhausen, who is making his third run for the School Board, said he has seen policies misinterpreted, significant new changes implemented with little discussion and new legislation passed in Tallahassee that isn't adequately explained or disseminated.
Neuhausen is a parent of three children who have gone through or are currently in Hernando schools. He believes the district needs to work to get parents more involved. One of his ideas: Move the board's workshops and meetings into the schools. "Let's get some ideas from the community," he said.
He said that would increase turnout and make residents more comfortable and more willing to come forward with issues and ideas.
"We need to get out there and start talking to people," he said. "Right now, the information is not getting out there."
One example Neuhausen cites is with the Common Core standards. He said people just don't understand them. He said he's seen Common Core in action when he helps out with middle school math. His verdict: The standards do not work.
"Teachers themselves don't like the way things are going to be connected to Common Core," he said.
Neuhausen said the district, in addition to improving communication, needs to address its budget shortfall and strengthen elective course offerings. "Our schools are not in good shape right now," he said. "We're looking at a financial crisis; we're looking at an educational crisis."
Neuhausen said he opposes the move to six-period instructional days at the district's middle and high schools. He also doesn't like how many district-level positions were added in the superintendent's recent reorganization. "We're becoming very top heavy," he said.
Contact Danny Valentine at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. Follow @HernandoTimes.