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In a room full of gems, it was their night to shine

Never again will I be able to hear Lee Ann Womack's hit song I Hope You Dance without the image of a dancing David Hickey going through my mind.

That is just one of the many memories from Tuesday night's gala dinner to honor this year's top teachers and support personnel of the Citrus County School District. Obviously, some scenes were better than others.

Outgoing Teacher of the Year Lorraine Gonzales startled the crowd by concluding her speech with a call for everyone to join her in dancing and singing along with the inspirational tune. She made it lady's choice by calling on the district superintendent to be her dance partner. Hickey, nursing an aching back, gamely _ if stiffly _ went along.

(For the record, after a few tentative steps with the person to my right, School Board member Lou Miele, I was rescued by Dr. Torri Lilly, the new provost at Central Florida Community College. I am forever in her debt.)

Gonzales' exercise captured the spirit of the event, equal parts fun and recognition of the deeper reasons why those in attendance have chosen careers in education. They love to help children and they are not afraid to take chances and to put forth the extra effort to be extraordinary.

The annual event, sponsored by the Citrus County Education Foundation, honors those recognized by their peers as being the best in each facet of education in Citrus County. The shame of it all is not only that just a fraction of the dedicated and innovative employees in the district can be recognized but that the entire community cannot be there to meet and honor them.

This year, I was fortunate enough to be on the committee that selected what is now called the School-Related Employee of the Year. Several years ago, I was on the panel that chose the Teacher of the Year. In both instances, the challenge was monumental: How can you pick just one of these amazing people?

For everyone on the committee, it was like choosing the brightest from among a collection of diamonds. The only comfort came in knowing that we really couldn't go wrong. No matter who was chosen, they were worthy of acclaim.

Being on the committee that reviewed the teachers gave me tremendous insights into our county's classrooms, and I learned a greater appreciation of the teachers' efforts. Spending time with the top support personnel this year opened my eyes to their worlds.

Think of the school district as a community within the larger framework of the county. These unsung heroes are the behind-the-scenes people who make the entire operation function. It is no exaggeration to call them the backbone of the school district.

If they are not doing their duties well, there are no children to teach, for who would drive the buses? The schools would fall into disrepair, students and teachers would go hungry, sick and injured children would have to fend for themselves.

The computer and communications networks, the arteries of information for the sprawling district, would close up without these professionals who keep the machines functioning. Visitors to the schools' main offices would be left frustrated. Paychecks would not make it to the correct hands. Important equipment would stay locked up in warehouses and not distributed to classrooms where it is needed.

And without their aides, the district's teachers would be more swamped than they are already.

For one night, the district paused to recognize all of those who perform such vital and thankless services every day. To demonstrate just how much the teachers and support workers rely on each other, the district for the second year honored both categories of employees at the same time.

It was an unintentional slight to the support workers to hold separate functions, mainly because the teachers' event got most of the notice. A little of that still lingers, (Why, for example, can't the plaques for the support workers have big gold stars like the teachers' instead of silver ones?), but the district has made genuine efforts to honor everyone equally.

But that is just being picky. The awards dinner was an unqualified success.

The student band Breez from Citrus High School blew the doors off the Citrus Springs Community Center with a high-energy medley of old-school rock tunes that were hits long before the kids were even born. Outback donated a bloomin' feast of steak, chicken and fixings, while Oysters Restaurant in Crystal River ruined everyone's New Year's diet resolutions with a table full of amazing desserts, also on the house.

CFCC's Lilly, the keynote speaker, shared how she rose from a modest home in West Virginia, the adopted daughter of parents with an eighth-grade education but who stressed the importance of learning, to earning five college degrees and reaching the upper tiers of her field.

Outgoing School Related Employee of the Year Tessa Wagner's speech included a riff off of the "You Might be a Redneck ..." schtick with some hilarious, and true, scenes from her work in a school clinic.

Master of ceremonies Randy Scott, the former Teacher of the Year for the state, kept the good times rolling by reading a poignant letter from a struggling student and leading a game in which Wagner attempted to float a folded $50 bill into the mouth of Gonzales, who was lying on the stage (she missed but they still got to keep the cash.)

The main event, of course, was the naming of the top award winners. After individual introductions of the 47 honorees, accompanied by a slide show and video comments, Margarita Creutz, the supervising nurse for Exceptional Student Services, was crowned the School-Related Employee of the Year. Hernando Elementary's Laura Windham became the county's top teacher.

It was an uplifting end to an entertaining evening that proved the truth of Lorraine Gonzales' assessment of the local school system: Great things are happening here.