Pasco School Board 5: Megan Harding defeats Tara O’Connor

Megan Harding, candidate for Pasco County School Board District 5
Megan Harding, candidate for Pasco County School Board District 5
Published November 6
Updated November 6

The Latest:

• With nearly all votes counted, Fox Hollow Elementary teacher Megan Harding holds a commanding lead of about 29,000 ballots over Hudson attorney Tara O'Connor.
•  Harding, a classroom teacher, will have to resign her position in order to serve on the board.
• Click  for the latest election results from across the Tampa area and Florida .

With all precincts counted, Fox Hollow Elementary teacher Megan Harding claimed victory over attorney Tara O'Connor in the race to replace retiring Pasco School Board member Steve Luikart, who attended his final board meeting earlier in the day.

With some mail votes outstanding, Harding held an unofficial lead of 58.5 percent to O'Connor's 41.5 percent.

Before she can take the office in two weeks, Harding will have to resign her teaching position with the district. State law forbids a government employee from serving on the governing board of his or her employer.

Harding said her resignation from the classroom will be bittersweet.

"My students mean so much to me," she said, tearing up. "The fact that the community chose me to be a voice for them … I'm doing it for them."

Harding said she couldn't wait to advocate for the students, parents, teachers and others in the community.

She will walk directly into potential controversy.

The board is scheduled to consider on Dec. 18 closing down Lacoochee Elementary in remote northeast Pasco, which has seen enrollment steadily shrink while struggling to retain teachers.  Lacoochee residents have vowed to stop the move, if they can.

Soon after, the board will debate whether to shutter two west-side elementary schools, as well.

The board also is in the middle of pay negotiations with its employee union, which has asked for millions more than the district has offered. Board members have said they want to give "meaningful" raises, but have done little to reset budget priorities to make it happen.

Harding said she didn't want to discuss the specifics yet, but stressed that, like Luikart, she will keep students first and foremost in her decision making process.

The two candidates to replace Luikart, who served two terms, came within 300 votes of one another in the four-person August primary.

O'Connor had the support of a broad cross section of Pasco community, civic and political leaders. She outspent Harding by more than $20,000 in the final weeks of the campaign, with a mailer to tens of thousands of registered voters.

Harding, meanwhile, positioned herself as more of an outsider, chastising O'Connor for the backing she got from various district officials, as well as constitutional officers and other elected leaders.

She repeatedly stressed her experience as a classroom teacher as a reason to back her bid for office. Harding said she understood what it means to be in the trenches of education, and that would inform her decisions on the board.

"All I've got to say is, the community agrees," she said Tuesday evening, as results rolled in. "We've got to have a teacher on the School Board."

O'Connor pointed to her own experiences as a parent, school volunteer and community activist, in addition to running her own business, as her credentials. She argued that the School Board deals with more issues than those pertaining to teachers, and suggested her background gave her a more well-rounded understanding.

The two differed on some key issues.

O'Connor said she would consider asking voters to increase taxes to generate more money for daily operations, including teacher pay. Harding was less open to the suggestion, preferring instead a closer review of existing expenses for waste.

Harding said she backed moving away from an elected superintendent to an appointed one.  O'Connor opposed that concept, saying the voters should maintain control over the post.

Pasco County is the largest school district in the nation with an elected superintendent.

The swearing in is scheduled for Nov. 20, where the board also will select new leadership. Incumbents Cynthia Armstrong and Allen Altman, who won reelection in August, also will be sworn at that time.

For national and statewide election results check out The Buzz

For local election results check out the Bay Buzz

For school board election results check out The Gradebook.

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