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Activist joins school chief race

The race for the job of Citrus school superintendent added a second formal candidate Thursday when activist Ansel Briggs filed his paperwork to run as a candidate with no party affiliation.

This will be the third run for the job by Briggs, a 64-year-old Homosassa resident who is well-known in local circles for his advocacy work and his regular appearances before public boards and agency officials. He has been outspoken on issues ranging from fair treatment of the elderly to the School Board's business decisions.

School Board Chairwoman Sandra "Sam" Himmel entered the race as a Democrat recently. Current superintendent David Hickey has said he plans to run for a second term, health permitting, but he has not yet filed his paperwork. He is also a Democrat.

The election will be in 2004.

Briggs said he is more compelled than ever to win the superintendent's job because he has not been happy with what Hickey has done for the district.

"I remember a billboard on (State Road) 44 last time which said, "It's all about the children,' " Briggs said. "I think it should have said, "It's all about Hickey.' "

He said the district has not done enough for children in reading instruction, and Hickey has not been able to solve a serious problem: his lack of communication with the School Board and the community.

"You can't progress that way," he said. "You get programs started with good intentions that look good on paper, but they never go far enough."

Briggs points to the district's dropout rates and attitudes by some administrators that some children will never be able to read up to a satisfactory level as proof.

"If it's all about the kids, then why aren't we doing more?" he asked.

Briggs considers his lack of ties to the district an asset. "I don't owe anybody anything," he said.

He sees the schools as falling behind the times and failing to find innovative ways to help children.

"Nine out of 10 times when that happens, a corporation looks outside to find a fresh look at these things. I believe I can offer a fresh look for education in Citrus County," Briggs said. "I also feel it's a civic duty for you to offer yourself out there" to provide public service.

Briggs is semiretired and has worked in a wide variety of fields ranging from mental health assistant, street counselor for runaways, director of a program called Felons and Community Together, steeplejack, painter and handyman.

A Detroit native, Briggs graduated magna cum laude from the University of Wisconsin with a bachelor's degree in education and a major in community education.

While his interest in accountability by public officials has been visible for years through his advocacy work, it was a personal experience with the school district in the late 1980s that sparked his interest in making changes in the public school system.

Three youths were involved in an incident where shots were fired at property. Briggs took the unusual step of approaching their parents and guardians, trying to find a way to keep them from spiraling into more trouble as they got older.

But when he sought to work with the schools to move the young men into innovative programs, he said he ran into a brick wall.

He said he believes current school officials have "tunnel vision" and always use the same solutions to deal with problems rather than seeking out new ways to fix what isn't working. "It ought to be taught in school, peripheral vision," Briggs said.

One example he gives is the district's choice to buy property in Lecanto and build a permanent home for the Renaissance Center. Briggs, who pushed for years for the district to create an alternative program such as the one at Renaissance, said school officials should have found a cheaper alternative, such as purchasing the now-abandoned Brown School building (formerly Heritage Hospital) off County Road 491 near Beverly Hills.

"There would be room for expansion, room for vocational training and classrooms," Briggs said. "Why don't they think that way?"

Briggs said his platform will include many of the same planks as in previous runs for the job. He said the lines of communication need to be opened up among school administration, the board and the community and he would push for a standing e-mail that the public can use to communicate their ideas.

Briggs favors a community reading education program that combines efforts from the schools and the community, and he said he would work to close the achievement gap for minority students, improve the cost-effectiveness of spending and provide a more multicultural workforce.

In his first run for superintendent, Briggs ran as a write-in candidate and earned 468 votes. Three years ago, he ran without party affiliation and garnered 5,483 votes.

While he has participated in the election process, Briggs said he still favors changing the system to where the School Board appoints a superintendent. That is the system used in some other Florida counties and other states.

"That way we'd be able to draw in somebody qualified from across the country," Briggs said.

"Then the School Board would have some control. As it is right now, the School Board has no control."

_ Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or behrendtsptimes.com.

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