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  1. Education

Voters have a chance to reshape Hernando School Board

Next month, voters will have an opportunity to dramatically change the face of the Hernando County School Board.

No matter which of the four candidates they choose in the two races on Nov. 4, the board will see two new faces.

The District 1 contest features Don Whiting, a prominent and longtime Spring Hill businessman, against Mark Johnson, a private investigator with big ideas. In the District 5 race, longtime former school principal and district administrator Susan Duval will face off against Robert Neuhausen, a passionate parent making his third run at a School Board seat.

District 1

Johnson enters the runoff with the most momentum coming out of the August election, having carried 41 percent of the vote to Whiting's 32 percent. John Sweeney, the incumbent, came in third with 28 percent.

The looming question: Will Whiting be able to capture enough of Sweeney's votes to win the election?

While he has the most ground to make up, Whiting has name recognition and substantially more money in his coffers than Johnson and could benefit from the fact that he and Sweeney are both registered Republicans despite the race's nonpartisan nature.

Both Johnson, 64, and Whiting, 68, are running for office for the first time. For the most part, it's been a clean election with each candidate focusing on his own strengths.

• • •

Johnson is a New York native who has frequently criticized the current board, calling its members "dysfunctional."

He said he is running due to the lack of leadership on the board, and the district's poor academic performance and low morale. He wants to nurture and develop Hernando's students.

He says the biggest difference between him and his opponent is his involvement in the issues affecting Hernando students.

"I've been involved for educational concerns in the county for six years, and I don't think he has been," he said. "I'm aware of the issues; I've been working on solutions."

Johnson believes he has better ideas and is better versed in the issues.

He has been critical of the board for allowing some of the district's buildings to fall into disrepair. He's also been critical of the relatively low per-student funding from the state, saying he'd like to partner with other districts to lobby Tallahassee to get the funding formula changed.

Over the years, Johnson has been active in the schools and with young people through various groups, including anti-drug, tobacco and underage drinking organizations. He is the chairman of Communities in Schools of Hernando County, a local dropout prevention organization.

He believes the county's high dropout and low graduation rates could be improved by strengthening vocational and technical offerings and giving students skills that would benefit them in the workforce.

"We're not teaching them what they need to know," he said. "We're not giving them the skill sets that employers need."

• • •

Donald Whiting, the owner of Whiting Insurance for more than three decades, brings the perspective of a business owner and parent of children in Hernando's public and private schools.

He adopts a hands-off approach when it comes to many of the important issues impacting the district and doesn't believe the board should micromanage superintendent Lori Romano.

For example, he said it is up to Romano to figure out how to best address the district's space issues.

"It's Dr. Romano's job to come up with the proper answer," he said. "I think (students) have got to be redistributed … I'm sure she will find the proper way of doing it with the smallest impact on students.

Whiting says he's spent a lot of time knocking on doors since the August election, introducing and reacquainting himself with residents.

Whiting believes he has shown strong fiscal responsibility in handling his business affairs, and believes he can do the same thing for the board.

Whiting also said he feels he can bring a spirit of compromise to the School Board.

"I think they are a little fragmented," he said. "I think I can bring the board into a better sense of consensus about our direction."

He said he would do that by educating himself on the issues and arguing his points — and accepting when he doesn't have support.

Whiting said he wants to see full skirting around portables and would like to see the Sheriff's Office call boxes moved to schools to boost the presence of law enforcement.

Whiting spent a decade on the county's Aviation Authority board and is an avid pilot. He has also served on a School Advisory Council, taught in the Junior Achievement program and participated in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

"I am the candidate who will promote and support fiscal responsibility as well as help strengthen the vision of our future that Hernando County's parents and educators have shared with me," he said.

District 5

Susan Duval and Robert Neuhausen are the two candidates to emerge from a crowded four-person field that included incumbent Cynthia Moore. Duval, who entered the race late in the game, pulled in the most votes, with about 37 percent. Neuhausen earned about 30 percent.

•••

Duval, 67, said she's been overwhelmed by the support her candidacy has generated.

"I truly appreciate it," she said. "I think they're looking for someone who not only knows the educational system, but has the ability to ask questions and be fair and listen."

Duval, who retired this summer, believes she is that candidate. She often says she is not a politician and that she will never make decisions based on getting re-elected. "They know I'm not that way," she said. "It's about doing the job."

Whether elected or not, Duval said she will stay involved in the district. She says she wants to give back to the system that gave her so much over the years.

Duval, who arrived in the district in 1969, has worked in many of the schools as a teacher and an administrator. She retired in June after finishing an 11-year stint as principal at Springstead High.

She believes the No. 1 issue facing the district is its finances, which has led to several years of 10 percent spending cutbacks at each of the schools.

Duval said the reserves need to be built up to a more comfortable level.

Noting that she is not afraid to make difficult decisions, she said she also would work to pass policy that would lead to more academic success, including increased professional development for teachers.

She also said board members need to speak in a unified voice to Tallahassee to improve its finances.

Duval said she's worried that the penny sales tax will not pass, which would be a significant blow to the school system. She said she's seen how badly the district needs the money.

"I've never seen it in such financial tightrope as it is right now," she said. "There has been no money coming in for capital outlay. … You have all kinds of facilities that need to be maintained, and the money is not there to do it."

• • •

Robert Neuhausen, 46, has been focused on communication since he ran for School Board during the last election cycle.

He said he thinks the school district often appears to be working in a silo and not aware of the issues it is supposed to be addressing.

For his part, he said, he's worked to embed himself in schools and educate himself as much as possible. When he hears of issues, he will frequently contact school officials about them or bring them to the attention of the School Board.

On the campaign trail, he said he's worked to meet and chat with as many residents as possible.

Neuhausen said he has seen policies misinterpreted, significant new changes implemented with little discussion and new legislation passed in Tallahassee that isn't adequately explained or disseminated.

Neuhausen is a parent of three current or former students in Hernando schools. He believes the district needs to work to get parents more involved. One of his ideas: Move the board's workshops and meetings into the schools. "Let's get some ideas from the community," he said.

He said that would increase turnout and make residents more comfortable and more willing to come forward with ideas.

"Right now, the information is not getting out there," he said.

Neuhausen said the district, in addition to improving communication, needs to address its budget shortfall and strengthen elective course offerings. "Our schools are not in good shape right now," he said. "We're looking at a financial crisis; we're looking at an educational crisis."

Neuhausen said he opposes the move to six-period instructional days at the district's middle and high schools. He also doesn't like how many district-level positions were added in the superintendent's recent reorganization. "We're becoming very top-heavy," he said.

Contact Danny Valentine at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432. Follow @HernandoTimes.

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