Editor's note: This story is part of a series leading up to Tuesday's primary election.
The winner of the District 4 Hernando School Board race will play a crucial role in shaping the district over the next four years, helping to choose the next superintendent and shepherding the district through tough financial times.
And the four candidates vying for the position held by James Yant, who decided not to run for re-election, couldn't come from more different backgrounds:
• Michael Angelo Gordon, a political newcomer, has a diverse background and a fiery focus on a select number of issues.
• Gus Guadagnino is a widely known businessman with extensive ties to the school district and the community.
• Robert Neuhausen has three children who attend district schools and brings a parent's touch.
• Helen Villafane, a district volunteer, is former longtime schoolteacher in New York with years of experience inside schools.
Guadagnino holds the fundraising lead with roughly $4,700. Gordon and Neuhausen both have raised more than $2,000 for their races, while Villafane has brought in just over $1,000.
The race is nonpartisan, meaning all registered voters, regardless of party affiliation, get to cast a ballot in Tuesday's primary election. If no candidate gets a majority, the top two will appear on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
From the start of his campaign, Gordon has emphasized just a few issues: Bullying, busing, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and the role teachers play in a child's life.
The bullying issue is actually part of what got Gordon interested in running for the board.
Awhile back, Gordon said, he went to a School Board meeting and heard a mother tell a story about her son being bullied, then being punished for defending himself.
Gordon said he identified with the young child. Years ago, he was that child.
At that meeting, he saw something else that bugged him: The board approved oodles in spending.
As a School Board member, he said, he would work to limit spending, keeping a careful eye out for unnecessary expenditures.
One type of expense he already has his eye on: out-of-state trips.
"I'm talking about when you have teacher conferences out in Utah," he said. "Those are pointless."
He also said he would stop supplying uniforms for staffers.
But it's not all about cutting.
Gordon thinks the district should resume courtesy busing for students who live within a 2-mile radius of their school.
As for the classroom, he believes there is too much of a focus on the FCAT and that teachers need more latitude in the classroom.
One issue that sets him apart from his opponents is his belief that schools should not be teaching character traits and ethics.
"Teachers should not instill character traits and responsibility," he said. "It's the parents job to teach that."
Stick to coursework, he says.
Gordon has very specific ideas for who should be the next superintendent, after Bryan Blavatt retires in 2013. He or she should be between 40 and 60 years old, with degrees in business management and at least 10 years of experience as a principal or previous experience as an assistant superintendent.
Gordon is not free of trouble in his past.
He was arrested in California in the 1990s on a domestic violence charge and later served 88 days in jail, he said.
He says he took a plea bargain after it was clear he would have lost in a jury trial.
"I was falsely accused," he said. "The real facts would have never came out because nobody would have admitted the truth."
He called it a very painful subject.
Guadagnino believes the school district should be run like a business.
And he knows something about business.
A semiretired owner of two companies, Guadagnino is immersed in the local business scene. He's also served on more than two dozen committees and boards in Hernando.
Among those, he's a board member of the Early Learning Coalition of Pasco and Hernando Counties and the former president of the Hernando County Education Foundation. At the end of this school year, he will have been there for 25 years.
He says that's helped him see the numerous problems affecting the school district.
"I'm in it," he said. "I'm in the trenches from early learning to college. I can see gaps in between."
While he feels the district should be run more like a business, that doesn't pertain to the classroom, he says. Teachers should run their classes.
It's not surprising that the ability to work with businesses and involve the community in education is an important quality Guadagnino wants to see in the next superintendent. He also wants a leader who is a visionary, an adept communicator and someone who has viable short- and long-term plans.
He says he is devoted to making K-12 education stronger, and has been doing so for years. He believes one of the major problems is a result of government involvement in the schools.
"I believe that government doesn't want to be in the education business any more," he said.
He says would work to limit government involvement, going to Tallahassee and lobbying legislators.
Guadagnino says he would work to avoid further cuts in the school district's budget. If more cuts become necessary, he would look everywhere except the classroom. He believes money could be saved by joining forces with the county and by improving purchasing agreements.
He also believes that parents must somehow become more invested in education.
"I think we need to put more on the backs of the parents to make sure that the students are learning," he said. "There's a big disconnect between parents and schools."
Among the biggest changes needed in the district: an immediate technology upgrade. As a part of that, students also need to become more technologically adept.
He advocates a more hands-on School Board, and says he would work hard to keep the superintendent's feet to the fire. He wouldn't get intimidated.
The strongest asset he says he brings, and the board lacks: leadership.
Neuhausen brings a perspective none of the other candidates can claim: He has three children who attend schools in the district.
Neuhausen, whose children range from sixth to 11th grade, is a member of the school advisory councils at his kids' schools and a member of the Parent-Teacher-Student Association.
"I'm very vested in their education," he said.
Many of the problems in the district begin and end with a lack of strong communication, he says.
He's seen what happens when the schools don't communicate well with parents.
He said a lack of information about zone changes last school year almost meant his son would have been forced to attend West Hernando Middle School instead of Powell Middle School, even though Powell is much closer to his home.
"There was no communication from the administration going down to the schools," he said.
He said his son was only able to go to Powell after he heard about applying for a special exemption from another parent.
One idea to improve communication: Take School Board meetings back into the schools.
"That seems to be when parents come out the most," he said. "You got to make it easier for parents to be involved in these meetings."
Neuhausen also says he wants to improve classroom technology and work with state officials to reform high-stakes testing. And he believes the district needs to do more to work with families, streamline bus routes and re-examine some of the recent zoning decisions.
But there's one issue that he's been more vocal about than any other candidate: his belief that the next district superintendent should be elected instead of appointed.
Although the idea has failed to gain much traction, Neuhausen says an elected superintendent would bring a much greater degree of public accountability. The superintendent would be directly responsible to the voters, causing that person to address issues and answer questions in front of the public.
People in the other camp argue just the opposite: A superintendent who reports to the board is far more accountable.
As for the next superintendent, he or she should be a strong communicator and someone with experience in the position, Neuhausen says. The person must have the ability to come up with and implement good ideas, experience handling a budget, good cost-saving ideas and the ability to work with people. He prefers a local candidate.
Neuhausen believes the district should consolidate by examining contracts for duplication, and only after that consider personnel cuts.
As a School Board member, Neuhausen says, he would be very interactive. He would go into classrooms. Visit the transportation department. Meet with maintenance and the administration.
"I want to get in there and basically get my hands dirty," he said. "You can't make decisions unless you know exactly what's going on. I want to get feedback."
Villafane is a longtime New York educator.
Although retired, she says she has never lost her passion for improving student education.
For more than four years, she has volunteered with the school district's HEART Literacy adult education program.
She says she is dismayed by how many students are not making it through the district.
"We have too many who are being thrown out the door or dropping out on their own," she said. "And it cannot be. We need to convince them. We need to make resources available in order for them to graduate.
She looks back to her tenure as an assistant principal in New York, during which her school's graduation rate increased.
"It's a lot of work," she said. "You have to be on top of the kid. You have to be on top of your guidance counselors. The parent."
She said communication, speaking with parents and keeping them involved is key. It's also important to keep the pressure on them.
"You have to go to school and you have to graduate in order to have a future," Villafane said. "If they don't go out there and graduate, they're not going to get a good job. They're not going to be able to buy a house. They're not going to be able to contribute to the tax base. They're not going to be able to be good citizens with the community."
She thinks education needs to be made more attractive to students.
How? Good jobs.
She believes the district should strike up partnerships with businesses.
"I'd like to see more types of co-op programs," she said. "College is not for everyone."
As an example, Villafane thinks the district could train mechanics to work on airplanes and teach other aviation-based technology.
"What I really would like to have is once you graduate, you have a job," she said. "Once you do that, where you have a more educated product, I think that would bring more businesses into the county."
Fitting with her desire for new partnerships, Villafane wants to see a superintendent who is not afraid to take risks. She also wants to see someone with a proven record of improving scores in reading, writing and other subjects.
As for any budget cuts, she feels the district should cut where it's top heavy. She would encourage the district to entice people to retire, hiring lower-paid, less-experienced personnel.
If cuts must be made, they need to be made surgically, she said.
Villafane also says she is passionate about eliminating or improving the FCAT so that it is more of a diagnostic test. And she believes the district should restore courtesy busing.
Above all, she says her concern is with providing the best education possible for students.
"I'm not looking at what is best for the School Board," she said. "I'm not looking at what is best for anything else except the child."
Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432.