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  1. Education

Pasco School Board candidates focus on experiences, support in campaign to replace retiring incumbent

In the race for Pasco County School Board District 5, candidate Megan Harding wants voters to know she's a teacher.

Harding contends that, in and of itself, that makes her the better qualified candidate.

"I know what goes on every single day in our classrooms, because I am in the trenches," she said at a recent forum and repeated in an interview.

To which candidate Tara O'Connor scoffed. She is a lawyer whose interactions with schools have come as a parent and volunteer. The board that oversees public education in Pasco needs other perspectives, she argued.

"I am running on a platform. I'm not running on my profession," O'Connor said. "Being on the School Board takes more than just that."

Only 223 votes separated Harding and O'Connor in a tight, four-person primary that sent them into a general election runoff for the nonpartisan seat representing northwestern Pasco. Now they're trying to distinguish themselves in a down-ballot race that gets drowned out by the heated partisan races for U.S. Senate and governor.

They have taken some shots at one another over campaign contributors and endorsements.

Harding touts herself as being supported by parents and teachers, not politicians, a pointed barb at O'Connor's backing by several elected officials, school system employees and district contractors. O'Connor also has been criticized for accepting a $1,000 donation from Charter Schools USA, a for-profit charter management company.

O'Connor has pushed back, noting that Harding also received contributions from local and state officials. She further added that such support should not define her candidacy, as she intends to be an independent voice if elected to the board.

Both aspirants hope to assume the mantle of retiring board member Steve Luikart, the board's most skeptical member over the past eight years. They said they would not be cowed into simply following the administration's lead if they disagree.

Harding reiterated that she, like Luikart, is an educator, and suggested that placed her in a better position to share his perspectives. O'Connor said she agreed with Luikart on many issues, but would seek compromise rather than being the lone "no" vote, as Luikart often was.

The candidates also have worked to highlight their policy differences on key issues facing the board.

O'Connor, for instance, said the board needs to set employee pay raises as a budget priority and, if the money is lacking, ought to seek voter approval for a tax increase to cover the costs.

Harding, by contrast, said she did not back a tax increase proposal, suggesting instead the district should use impact fees to pay for raises (which is not allowed) and use its influence with lawmakers to seek added funding. She agreed that the district must strengthen employee pay and other forms of support.

Despite their pro-staff stances, neither won enough support from Tiger Pride — the United School Employees of Pasco's political action committee — to gain an endorsement.

On charter schools, O'Connor stood by the district's position that state law does not require it to share construction funds with charters. She noted that it's difficult to pledge money without knowing how much, if any, will be coming in.

Harding focused on the "home-grown" charters, as opposed to company-managed ones, and suggested they should share in the district funds.

"They are all our students," Harding said.

They do not differ on every subject.

Both agreed the School Board needs to operate in a more transparent manner. They supported live streaming and recording board meetings for the public, as well as having more open discussion about items currently lumped together for action on a consent agenda.

They also concurred on the goal of more advanced planning for future school zone revisions, so families can prepare for what leaders know is coming because of continued rapid growth.

If elected, Harding said she plans to make herself a regular presence in schools, treating the board position as a full-time job and volunteering in classrooms to see what's going on inside.

O'Connor said she intends to continue her regular job, and to represent the district's interests by pursuing issues she learns of from the community.

School Board seats are nonpartisan, and voted on countywide even though the candidates must live in set districts. The winner will be the only new member of the five-person board.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @jeffsolochek.