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Politics and education make a foul-tasting brew

"I just don't want to give up my right to vote."

Dave Langer repeated that over and over as we sat in the Times office in Inverness and discussed the referendum in March on switching from election of a superintendent to empowering the School Board to appoint one.

Langer requested the meeting, presumably to sway the newspaper from its long-standing editorial position that the appointive method is best for school districts. He knew coming in that the Times' arguments were pointed and plentiful.

But instead of debating those points _ that a better pool of candidates would be attracted and that there would be less opportunity for politics to creep into what should be a job insulated from such pressures _ Langer dismissed them. Instead, he focused on a single argument: "I just don't want to give up my right to vote."

Langer did not change the Times' stance. The newspaper continued to endorse the appointive system, which turned out to be a minority opinion, because the referendum failed by a 2-1 margin, and Citrus County retained the election of superintendents.

After the referendum, when Superintendent Jimmy Hughes announced he would not seek election to the office he has held since Carl Austin retired, I speculated on this page that the county would be in a better position to attract a qualified candidate if it had opted for an appointed superintendent. That column drew accusations from some of the people who worked hard to retain superintendents' election that I was dining on sour grapes.

Today, I almost wish that were true. If it were, I would find it easier to digest than the heaping helping of political mush that is being force-fed to the people of Citrus County.

Langer, who professed in March to just being a concerned resident who didn't want "to give up my right to vote," now has his eye trained on a top job in the school district. If he gets it, it will be solely because the status quo prevailed in the referendum.

Langer is out campaigning for Karen Johnson, who is giving up her state Senate seat in hopes of being elected superintendent. If she is successful, she plans to offer Langer an upper-management job running the business side of the school district.

Of course, Johnson still needs to traverse the campaign trail before she starts promising jobs to her friends. She has to win a September primary, and possibly an October runoff, before she has the opportunity to win November's general election. But, armed with a hefty campaign war chest and 10 years of experience as a board member, that challenge does not seem to worry her much.

However, Johnson's road to victory may have become a little bumpier because of Langer's zealous support.

Langer stepped over a line recently when he questioned a school principal's allegiance to another candidate for superintendent, Pete Kelly. While on school property, Langer asked Roberta Long, Inverness Primary School's principal, about her support of Kelly, a clear violation of School Board policy. It was the first confirmed report of improper politicking, which has had the rumor mill buzzing for weeks.

Langer clearly should have known better, especially because he served on the board. Politics has no place in the classroom.

But that's the ideal; the reality is that politics will be a part of Citrus County's educational system as long as the boss, or the person who wants to be boss, must be a politician first, and an educator and administrator second.

It's also a reality that people who are friends of the boss and who have worked hard to get the boss elected will be rewarded for their loyalty, sometimes with a job, like Langer, who just doesn't want "to give up his right to vote."

It's worth saying again: This type of distasteful activity, pressuring educators to support candidates and premature promises of patronage jobs being offered, would not be happening if Citrus County appointed a superintendent instead of electing one.

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