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Political talk at school raises red flag

Dave Langer, a strong supporter of Karen Johnson's bid to be the next school superintendent, wondered why one of the district's principals was backing someone else for the job.

Rather than speculate on the reasons, Langer recently spoke directly with Roberta Long, Inverness Primary School principal, about why she is supporting Pete Kelly for the job.

The timing and location of his political inquiry, however, has landed him in some hot water.

Langer posed his question to Long during her regular workday at the school. Long could not respond without violating a School Board policy that prohibits political activities during the workday at school.

Long declined to discuss her conversation with Langer.

On Monday, Langer, a former School Board member who expects to be part of Johnson's administration if she is elected, downplayed the incident.

"I didn't do any real politicking out there," he said.

Others might disagree, including Langer's longtime friend, Superintendent James Hughes.

Hughes said Monday he has heard concerns of just such political conversations happening with school employees in the district.

So has School Board member Sheila Whitelaw, who said she will raise the issue during today's regular School Board meeting. Whitelaw said she wants to be sure everyone in the district knows that talking politics at work is prohibited.

That's tough in a year that nearly everyone agrees is a turning point for the Citrus County schools. Three School Board seats and the superintendent's job are all up for grabs, and some longtime administrators who have never before had to wonder about their future employment are beginning to do so.

Hughes said he will continue to back the board's policy of keeping politicking out of the schools.

Hughes said he has reminded his administrative staff to avoid the issue at work and he will again remind his principals as the beginning of the school year approaches.

"I heard some concerns today," Hughes said. "The school administration knows and they have heard from me that politics are to be kept out of the school environment."

Hughes said he has no problem with his employees getting to know candidates in their off hours because they need to know about the people running for such important offices.

Whitelaw said she will seek board approval today to have the district's policy copied and sent to all schools.

Not only would that remind school employees to refrain from pushing political candidates, she said, but it would also give them a ready-made excuse if someone from outside the district approaches them at school to talk about a candidate.

"I want to make sure that everyone understands that the policy exists," Whitelaw said. "I want to make sure that there is no intimidation or fear from employees if they're told they have to support one candidate over another."

Whitelaw said she wasn't sure that anyone had been intimidated, but "to me it has the appearance of being intimidating, of putting people on the spot."

Johnson said that she wasn't aware that Langer had spoken to any school officials at school. In fact, she said she has been so cautious about keeping her campaign separate from her job as state senator that she has opened a campaign office, which is adjacent to Langer's Rent a Wreck business in Inverness.

"I support" the board's policy, Johnson said. "I don't agree that anyone should be out talking to educators on school time."

Johnson, a 10-year member of the School Board and a state senator for four years, is one of three Democrats who will appear on the September Democratic ballot. Educators Casey Kearse and Bob Brust are the other two.

Pete Kelly, a teacher and longtime Inverness City Council member, is seeking the job on the Republican side against School Board member Janet Herndon and attorney Gerald Pickett.