Karen Johnson says the reason she is the best candidate in the Oct. 1 Democratic school superintendent runoff is simple: 14 years of leadership and accomplishment in local and state elected offices.
Her opponent, Homosassa Elementary School principal Robert Brust, says his credentials are stronger. They start with a decade of running a school, run through management skills honed in statewide educational associations and include training in high technology.
The Democrat who wins the most votes in the runoff will face Republican candidate Julian "Pete" Kelly and write-in candidate Ansel Briggs in November's general election for the four-year, $80,269-a-year position.
Since the superintendent candidates first stepped onto the campaign trail several months ago, qualifications have been the focus of the race.
Johnson has fielded constant questions about her ability to lead the school district with no more formal education than a high school diploma. She answers by pointing to the 10 years she served on the Citrus County School Board and her last four years as state senator.
Johnson, 52, served three of her four years as either chairwoman or vice chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. She also has been a member of community groups including the Altrusa Club and Drug Free Youth Organization, the Family Resource Center and the board of Marion-Citrus Mental Health.
Johnson said this experience has taught her the nuts and bolts of complex issues such as school funding. And she has learned "there are other ways to go after dollars other than local taxes" including a variety of grants.
Along those lines, she has pushed the district to seek reimbursement through Medicaid for some of the services it provides to disabled students. Johnson also said the district should be more aggressive in seeking equipment to update the system's technology programs through private business partnerships.
If elected, she said she would stay in touch with teachers to be sure the district understands exactly what materials teachers need. "We need to be recycling dollars back into the classroom," Johnson said.
Johnson also thinks the district must give students more guidance to help them make good decisions about the classes they need to meet their goals.
She said her real strength is her ability to look at issues from a statewide perspective.
In her travels, Johnson said, she has seen a variety of educational approaches. "I've seen so many good programs out there," she said. Other districts "have already worked out the kinks."
"Citrus County has one of the best school systems in the state . . . but I do believe that we can look at other counties," she said.
Brust said he, too, is very familiar with issues on the statewide level. As legislative liaison and this year's president of the Florida Council on Elementary Education, he has been involved in reviewing and making recommendations on changes in the state law.
Brust, 46, has been principal at Homosassa since 1984 and spent the previous 11 years as a music teacher at the school. He has a bachelor's degree from Saint Leo College and a master's degree from the University of Southern Mississippi.
Throughout the campaign, Brust has said that running a school is a microcosm of running a school district.
"The job of school superintendent, yes, it's a public relations job to some degree, but the bottom line is that it is an administrative job," he said. "You need someone in there who is familiar with all the various areas of the school operation" from curriculum to transportation to school personnel.
Those are topics school principals deal with every day, he said.
"You need to have some expertise in dealing with all that," he said. "I think it's critical to have that background and that expertise . . . because the bottom line is that you are responsible for everything."
Having someone unfamiliar with all aspects of the system could present problems, he said. "Sure, there are a lot of experts working under you, but if you don't know their job, you may not know if they're doing their job."
Brust acknowledged that elected officials have a unique perspective. "Yes, you are a leader, but you are a leader as part of a group," he said. "That's a lot different than being in that one seat . . . the one that's the decisionmaking position."
Brust also said the county needs a superintendent who knows the direction the district has been working toward.
"There are a lot of initiatives we have started and we need someone in the superintendent's office who has been involved in those things," he said.
He jokingly calls himself the "techie principal" because he is involved in finding ways technology can help both the administrative and the academic sides.
Brust, a longtime member of the school district's negotiating team with the Citrus County Education Association, has won that union's recommendation.