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Candidates line up for School Board seats // DISTRICT 5

Three Democrats are hoping for a shot at the District 5 School Board seat vacated midterm by Janet Herndon.

The candidates are two Florida Power Corp. employees, Michael Noland and Gerome Randle, and office supply store manager Sandra "Sam" Himmel.

Each is campaigning on a unique mix of work experience and community involvement to convince voters he or she is the best candidate to fill the remaining two years of the term.

Whoever wins a majority of the votes either Sept. 3 or in the October runoff, if that is necessary, will face Republican B.J. Collins in the general election in November.

Himmel, 41, manages her father's Walt Connors Office Supply. Not only has the store and Connors' related businesses received millions of dollars' worth of business from the school district over the years, but Himmel was a classroom teacher in Crystal River before taking over the business.

For years, the district has been criticized by state auditors and in the past year by the community for doing business with the office supply store and other vendors without bidding.

Fiscal accountability is a key plank in Himmel's platform.

"Being in small-business management, I think that I have an advantage" over the other candidates in the race, Himmel said. "There are a lot of things that the school system does, and I think we ought to ask why."

Himmel said that the school system should seek competitive bids and that her business probably would not bid on future School Board needs if she were elected. She blamed past abuses on the fact that not bidding was easier and more convenient for the school district.

She said the budget must be examined line by line and the district needs to continue to seek every dollar of grant money available.

She said she doesn't know whether the administrative structure is top-heavy but said she would study the issue. She noted that, in business, sometimes employees need to just take on more work to get the job done.

Himmel said she loved being a middle school teacher and would go back to the job tomorrow, but she said she wasn't sure a School Board member needed to be in the classroom all the time.

"I do want to get together with teachers," she said, adding that they should get what they need.

Himmel said the district's future financial decisions may mean that no one gets quite what they want, but with shrinking budgets, that is the district's only choice.

Noland, 40, has had firsthand experience with the school system through his involvement with the PTA and his membership on the Rock Crusher Elementary School advisory/enhancement council. He ran unsuccessfully against Herndon two years ago and was planning another run for the job in two years when Herndon announced plans to run for superintendent.

He points to his experience as a Florida Power supervisor as proof that he can do a good job on the School Board. The primary need is to build teamwork among the board and between the board and the administration, he said.

To do that, board members need to "remain focused on issues" rather than letting personalities or differences pull them apart, he said. "I've had to build consensus and resolve conflict. . . . I just work well with people."

Unlike Himmel, Noland said he wanted to spend time in the schools with the teachers and staff as well as in the county office.

Noland has been endorsed by the Citrus County Education Association, the union that bargains for the district's 900 teachers, and his wife is a teacher at Rock Crusher Elementary School. He has said he wants to involve teachers more because "teachers can identify the needs of students."

Noland also wants to scrutinize the school district budget. "I don't believe in micromanaging . . . but I do think the budget is one of the School Board's responsibilities," he said.

A supporter of establishing a free-standing alternative school, Noland said disruptive students need to be placed in smaller classes to see if they can be turned around before finding themselves in the juvenile justice system.

Randle, 35, is an electrician for Florida Power. He has worked with children in youth athletics and church activities and is chairman of REAP, Raising Educational Awareness and Participation.

REAP volunteers last school year provided tutoring for children and this year hope to expand that effort. The organization grew out of efforts to improve racial and gender equity in the district's academics, athletics and hiring practices.

A member of the district's equity committee, Randle said he saw the School Board job as "another area where I can be of assistance to the school system."

Randle said he will push for an alternative school for children who cannot succeed in the regular classroom. He wants an alternative program that will help disruptive and disinterested students.

He said he also wants parents to know the details of the district's discipline policies, to be sure "that our discipline program is equitable."

Another focus in Randle's platform is to be sure classrooms have the supplies and personnel they need. In decisions ranging from hiring to purchasing, "I would always look at how that affects the classroom," he said.

Randle said that, as a board member, he would provide the support that teachers need because they "are the front-line grunt troops." Randle got his nuclear electrician training in the Navy.

As a parent, Randle said he has at times found School Board members unapproachable. He said that may have stemmed from his own reluctance to make contact, but he said he would make an extra effort as a board member to be sure everyone feels comfortable coming to him.

"The School Board represents this community and should always present itself as accessible," he said.

That community involvement in education is necessary, he said.

"I believe we have good schools in Citrus County . . . but I do believe there is room for improvement here," Randle said. "Schools cannot be stuck in one place. If you're not going forward, you're going backward."