Over the past few years, the Hernando School Board has been through a difficult period of budget cutting, personnel moves and administrative overhaul while simultaneously shifting its gifted program, reinforcing attendance rules for its magnet high school and embarking on the construction of its newest high school in Weeki Wachee. Voters should look for School Board candidates with the skills and judgment needed to move the district beyond the status quo and who have the ability and desire to make the tough choices ahead on budgeting and academics. The nonpartisan races on the Aug. 24 ballot are open to all voters.
John K. Sweeney District 1
Incumbent School Board member John K. Sweeney, 47, has proven to be a capable School Board member since his election four years ago. A former teacher, he holds a graduate degree in education leadership and puts that background to good use. Sweeney is the board member who first identified and balked at the controversial no-zero grading policy buried in a staff recommendation in 2009 and more recently he provided the swing vote to change school start times that allowed the district to save $750,000 in annual transportation costs.
We have not agreed with all of his positions. He remained loyal to dismissed superintendent Wayne Alexander for far too long and his objections to relocating the gifted program from Explorer appeared too colored by his wife's role as the then-assistant principal at that school.
He is opposed by Nilsa Torro, 62, an energetic 20-year employee of the school district where she has been both a paraprofessional and a secretary. She displays a genuine desire to represent students and families who she believes are disenfranchised by some district decisions, citing the change in school start times as an example. She emphasizes a need for better communication. However, she seems unprepared to make the difficult budget-balancing decisions that could be forthcoming. To her credit, she said the board should approve the quarter-mill tax increase authorized by the Legislature. But she is unwilling to consider other options including reducing employee benefits, charging for middle school athletics or the previously cited start times. The Times recommends John K. Sweeney for School Board District 1.
Keane Chapman District 3
First-term incumbent Dianne Bonfield, 62, a former teacher with a master's degree in curriculum and instruction, had an uneven four years. She provided the swing vote to terminate Alexander, but not until months after the superintendent's job search and rescinded public resignation had doomed his credibility. Then, miffed over botched attendance controls at the district's magnet high school, Bonfield resigned as board chairwoman rather than sign the contract with Alexander's temporary replacement, Sonya Jackson. Such petulance is unbecoming an elected public servant.
She offers specific ideas on balancing the budget and was the only board member to advocate an administrative salary freeze in early 2009. Yet, this year she rejected the change in school start times, saying the cost savings were not worth the public inconvenience she foresees.
Moving the start times, her opponent, Keane Chapman, points out, is the equivalent of saving 14 teaching jobs. It's that sound logic that makes Chapman, 41, the national sales manager at Alumi-Guard, the preferable candidate.
Chapman said he decided to locate in Hernando County five years ago because of its reputation for top-notch public schools, but said the district moved backward the past few years. He correctly blamed a sometimes-indecisive board and a past administration that failed to groom future district leaders. Though still relatively new to Hernando, Chapman is invested in the public school system. He has been the parent co-chairman on the School Advisory Committee for Explorer K-8 and his wife is a teacher in the district. Voters should let him expand that investment by electing him to the District 3 School Board seat.
Mike Bainum District 5
Four-term incumbent Sandra Nicholson said she brings an outside business perspective to the Hernando School Board. One of her opponents, retired teacher Cynthia J. Moore, brings the educator's point of view. The other challenger, Mike Bainum, however, can bring both and it is the reason he is the top candidate for the District 5 School Board seat. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will run off in November.
Bainum, 48, was a successful restaurant manager for two decades before switching careers and becoming a culinary arts teacher at Hernando High School in 2004. The diverse resume gives him an understanding of the demands on classroom teachers coupled with an ability to see big picture finances and management responsibilities. His high energy level will be an asset for a board that sometimes drifts without leadership.
Moore, 68, spent 41 years as a district educator and then stayed as a volunteer after her retirement in 2004. A one-time president of the teachers union, she offers nonspecific criticism that the district is not child-oriented and fails to articulate a substantial reason for her candidacy.
Nicholson, 62, touts her oversight for saving the district significant money in construction costs, but she is disengaged on other matters. Remarkably, she said she has no memory of votes in late 2006 — just after her current term began — to raise her salary above what a beginning teacher earns, or her support for obtaining a federal grant to randomly drug test teenage students. A board majority rejected the grant. Nicholson, too, was overly loyal to Alexander, the former superintendent.
To move the Hernando School Board forward, the Times recommends voters elect Mike Bainum to the District 5 seat.
Opportunity to respond: The Times offers candidates not recommended by the editorial board an opportunity to reply. School Board candidates should send their replies no later than 5 p.m. Wednesday to C.T. Bowen, Pasco/Hernando editor of editorials, St. Petersburg Times, 11321 U.S. 19, Port Richey, FL 34668; by fax (727) 869-6233; or via e-mail to email@example.com. Replies are limited to 250 words.