TAMPA — In 2002, Jennifer Faliero called herself an outsider when she ran for a seat on the Hillsborough County School Board.
She reveled in her status as the tough-talking PTA mom who fought school overcrowding on the east side of the county, pressuring developers to pay their fair share.
"They just don't know what we're capable of," she told the Times.
Eight years later, three challengers want to prevent her from winning a third term from District 4. And Faliero is running as the experienced insider.
"Right now, unfortunately, I don't think there's a lot of room for on-the-job training," said Faliero, 47, describing the challenges of running the nation's eighth-largest school district.
But her challengers — Kirk E. Faryniasz, Stacy R. White, and Richard Bartels — say they have plenty of experience.
Bartels, 61, worked for 38 years as a Hillsborough teacher and high school principal, before retiring in 2008. He hasn't been shy about taking on the district, saying it should do more to weed out "ineffective and inept administrators." This spring, he won the much-prized endorsement of the teachers union.
Bartels said he supports the district's seven-year, $202 million effort with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to reform teacher evaluation and link pay to student performance. But he said it should do more to address disruptive students.
"When I was a principal, (students) knew you better be in class," Bartels said. "You'd be held accountable for disrupting a teacher in class."
He said Faliero has missed too many board meetings and has made a poor effort to visit schools and constituents.
White, a 37-year-old pharmacist, also said Faliero has "not been accessible" to voters.
But he reserved much of his ire for the School Board, saying it conducts too much business behind closed doors and without adequate oversight of superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
"They meet at times when many folks would have a hard time being there in person," said White, a parent of three school-age children. "Their job is to serve as an important check and balance on the superintendent."
He said he supports the Gates reforms' focus on paying teachers for performance, as long as the measurement tools are fair. But the district pushed those reforms through "very quickly and without a lot of input" from the public.
Faryniasz, 54, a retired Air Force officer, said he has spent much of the campaign walking door to door — both to introduce himself and to gauge voters' sentiments on the school system.
He said senior citizens feel alienated, and many parents of special-needs students are embittered after tough battles for services. Few have ever heard from a School Board member.
Born in Vermont, he ran for governor in that state before moving to Florida in 2005. In 2008, he ran for the Florida House of Representatives.
Faryniasz said he feels a strong calling to help lead the Hillsborough County schools through tough economic times.
"I am a fiscal conservative; I'm cheap," he said. "And we're not getting the tax revenues we did before. I think there are a lot of questions to be answered."
Faliero has tried to navigate and occasionally affirm such populist challenges while defending her own record as an incumbent.
It hasn't been easy this year, as the single mother of two struggled under the weight of more than $53,000 in credit card debt — a carryover from a tough divorce, she said. Family medical troubles also caused some absences from meetings.
But Faliero said overseeing the district's $3 billion budget has helped her develop financial management skills that her challengers lack.
She sees the Gates reforms as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to help good teachers get better, and to fire those who "should have never been in the classroom." She wants to improve district communications, with better e-mail updates and an anonymous forum for teachers and staff to offer suggestions "without fear." Teachers and students often have the best solutions, she said, and giving them a voice will boost morale.
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.