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Reality will soon test school chief's kind words

Schools Superintendent Sandra "Sam" Himmel took the correct and, for her, most natural approach to her new job on Monday when she greeted the district's teachers at a combination welcome back party and pep rally at Curtis Peterson Auditorium.

Treating the hundreds of educators in the hall as if they truly were her extended family, Himmel thanked them for their support and promised a new era of openness between the administration and the instructors.

If she accomplishes nothing else during her term than to improve communications among all levels of the school district, Himmel's spot in the school system hall of fame will be assured.

Her overture of openness will be tested, however, when the first contract negotiations for teachers and support personnel commence on her watch. How she approaches these typically adversarial relations will be a strong signal to all of how she intends to put her kind words into action.

Having experienced the Citrus County school system as a student, a teacher, a School Board member and now as its chief administrator, Himmel is in a position to understand the needs at every level. Keeping everyone happy, however, is another matter.

Himmel will face the same challenges that have hamstrung each of her predecessors, despite their best intentions upon entering the office. State mandates, funded and otherwise; student population fluctuations; construction needs; societal expectations of the school system _ these and many more headaches await.

Himmel also inherits the Nightmare on Yulee Drive, otherwise known as the Homosassa Elementary building scandal. The Blue Ribbon Committee that is examining the flawed project is certain to recommend significant changes in how the district handles its construction needs. Implementing those recommendations will rub some people in the administration the wrong way and will also test Himmel's resolve.

Himmel at least takes office in a better political situation than did her immediate predecessor, David Hickey, whose candidacy in 2000 against his boss, incumbent Pete Kelly, split loyalties within the district. She will have fewer fences to mend.

The better comparison may well be with Jimmy Hughes, who was appointed to the superintendent's post in 1995 when Carl Austin took early retirement. Hughes, like Himmel, had no experience in running an operation of the size and complexity of the school district but he was, and remains, beloved by many people in the community.

That support carried Hughes only so far and the stresses of the job played havoc with his health, leading him to decide not to seek election in 1996.

Himmel is smart to play her ace card _ her friendliness, humor and genuine affection for the community and the people who make up the school system _ at the beginning of her administration. This will go a long way toward building a trove of goodwill for the inevitable tough times that will come.

But just as wise parents tell their children that they are not their buddies or friends but their mothers and fathers, Himmel must remind her friends throughout the district that she is their boss now.

They all know that, of course, but people are sure to test the boundaries in the coming four years. Hurt feelings are sure to follow.

Himmel's warmth and genuine affection for the staff will extend her honeymoon for awhile. At least, until the first crisis hits.