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Senate candidates focus on education

Education was among the hot topics Wednesday for candidates for Senate District 11 during a political forum Wednesday at Bayonet Point Regional Medical Center.

The newly drawn Senate district runs from northern Pinellas County up through the west sides of Pasco and Hernando counties and a small portion of southern Citrus County. The forum was sponsored by the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce and the Suncoast News.

The candidates, including Dunedin City Commissioner Janet Henderson, responded to questions from a panel of editorial writers from the Tampa Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times.

Democratic candidate and former Pasco County Sheriff Lee Cannon said the state Legislature has succeeded in giving tax breaks to corporations but failed to properly put money in the classrooms.

He's in favor of revamping the state tax code and the exemptions it grants to certain businesses to find more money for education.

"I'm not saying we need new taxes," Cannon said. "If we quit trying to appease and buy votes by giving tax breaks, we can probably . . . do something about schools."

State Rep. Mike Fasano, a Republican candidate for the seat, said he is against revamping the code and the exemptions.

Instead, Fasano said he thinks audits of schools already have uncovered millions of dollars that can be poured into education. He also favors removing costly state requirements on school districts.

"Fewer mandates move money into classrooms," Fasano said.

Republican Dunedin City Commissioner Janet Henderson said she favors more accountability for schools and likes the idea of school impact fees, which Pasco already has.

Political newcomer Joseph "Steve" Mattingly, a Democrat, said he'd find more money for education by examining the state budget more closely.

"You are going to have to take bold steps with the governor giving our money away," Mattingly said.

Fasano said he favors Florida's voucher system, known as the A+ Plan, which allows parents in schools deemed to be failing twice in a four-year span to take public money to place their children in private schools.

"I believe what we've implemented is working," Fasano said.

Mattingly said he sees no problem with vouchers.

Henderson said she's concerned that the private schools are not accredited.

Cannon was much more bold.

"The A+ program has basically been a failure," Cannon said. The corporate private schools taking money from the public school system are not held to the same standards, he said.

"The voucher system needs to be reviewed," he said.

Candidates also said they were concerned about health care and insurance problems.

Mattingly, a volunteer at local hospitals, said he worries what the future holds for the large number of working residents without insurance.

Henderson said she was concerned about the spiraling cost of health insurance.

Mattingly probably got the biggest reaction _ laughter _ in response to a question about his lack of experience in office.

"I'm sure with my little bit of experience, I can't do any worse than they've done in Tallahassee," Mattingly said.