Five questions for Hernando school District 5 candidates

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School Board Member Cynthia Moore faces three challengers in her bid for a second term representing District 5.

Challenging Moore are business owner Anna Liisa Covell, retired Springstead High School Principal Susan Duval and electrical engineer Robert Neuhausen, who twice has unsuccessfully sought election for the District 4 seat.
Five questions for Hernando school District 5 candidates

As of last week, Moore had raised more campaign money — more than $6,600 — than her challengers, although Duval (more than $4,100) and Neuhausen (nearly $5,600) weren’t far behind.

Covell, who had raised $2,000, said she believes her outsider status will help her look objectively at issues that plague the district, such as low-performing schools.

Duval said more than 40 years of experience as an educator will make her an effective school board member.

Neuhausen said there are communications problems within the school district that he can improve.

School board races are nonpartisan and school board members serve four-year terms. Elections are Aug. 26.

The candidates answered the following five questions posed by Hernando Today:

1. Why are you running for office and what differentiates you from your opponent(s)?

Covell: I believe I’m the best choice for Hernando County School Board, District 5, based on my knowledge of running a business for 22 years in Hernando County. I will be able to objectively look at concerns, which have been overlooked by the incumbent school board member, like low-performing schools, school maintenance and the budget that has operated in the red for four years. I am the only candidate in District 5 who hasn’t been affiliated with the school system, either as a teacher or SAC member. As an outsider, I believe I can be more objective with issues facing the district, like the immediate need for school improvement, maintenance on school structures and the budget. I will not be a rubber stamp for administrative proposals.

Duval: I am running for the school board seat primarily to continue my service on behalf of the students, staff and parents of Hernando County. I have a deep belief in the educational value of providing a path of opportunity for all students. In June, I retired from the school system after 42 years of service. I am able to present to all voters in Hernando County my experience of providing successful leadership, collaborative problem-solving skills and the ability to utilize data and research in the decision-making process.

Moore: I feel that I can make a difference in the lives of students. Being in the schools daily, parents talk to me and share their concerns. This is one of the main differences between myself and my opponents. Being involved is so important. A school needs to present a nurturing atmosphere.

Neuhausen: Communication is vital to understanding and being aware of what is and what will be happening in our schools. I am running because I can help facilitate bringing our community into the process. We do not do an effective or a thorough job at properly communicating within our school system, on every level from the state to the student.

I can differentiate myself in several ways. I have been a part of the education system from a parent’s and community member’s point of a view for almost 20 years. I started volunteering and mentoring middle school and high school students when I was a student at USF completing my engineering degree. I started by helping students with science fair projects and also the judging of their projects. I still participate in that process today with our local Science and Engineering Fair.

I have never been an employee of the school district and as such I am able to see our schools as our community sees them and have talked to other parents and a few senior high school students on what’s happening or what is missing in our schools.

2. What is the biggest issue facing the school district and what would you do to address it?

Covell: The biggest issue facing the Hernando County School District is under-performing schools. Not one school board member took responsibility after 14 schools dropped in ratings in 2013 to hold the superintendent accountable.

Now the school district is applauding its own success with a C grade — a C grade for the third consecutive year, which is mediocre at best.

In 2014, seven additional schools dropped one letter grade, with four receiving a D rating.

Having quality teachers is not the problem in our county — the problem is lack of administrative oversight. The administrator needs to be judged by the same standards as county teachers. By this, I mean superintendent evaluations should be based on 50 percent of students’ overall performance in the school district.

Duval: One of the biggest issues facing the school district is financial stability. As a board member, I would utilize an approach that encourages the participation and expertise of many certified accountants in our county to help examine the budget and develop both short-term and long-term solutions. With the challenge of providing quality K-12 programs that will benefit all students, I would also want the voices of our students, school staff members and parents to be heard prior to the board making substantive changes in policy and procedures.

Moore: The biggest issue facing the school board is the poor condition of some of our buildings. Pica funds were not sent to the board several years as it went to charter schools. We must get the buildings repaired so we can move forward.

Neuhausen: Financial shortfall — we are facing a large budget deficit. We will have to look at any and all options in how we overcome this deficit. For example, the recent decision to move from 7 periods to 6, I understood the thought process behind it but I am totally opposed to it. We are going to have to be creative. For example, here are two proposals; one is mine (actually a team effort with my son) and the other was introduced to me by a parent.

1: Fuel is very costly, driving slower saves fuel. Requiring buses to drive no faster than 5 mph less than the posted speed limit will save fuel. Albeit the amount saved only will be fraction of the budget, it will still be a savings.

2: Propose combining bus routes for middle and high schools where appropriately located.

3. Where do you stand on Penny for Projects, the 1 cent sales tax increase being proposed by the county and school district?

Covell: I believe the school board was very foolish with their decision to combine the half-cent continuation of sales tax for the schools with “Penny for Progress” scheme with county government to raise our taxes.

The county commission chose again not to help education in Hernando County by suspending school impact fees.

Now, the same commission wants to piggyback with the school system to raise taxes for capital improvements — the same capital improvements that should have been paid for by developers with impact fees for roads and infrastructure improvements.

The school board is gambling with the future of Hernando County’s school children. They took away voter’s choice to vote just for the continuation of the half-cent school tax.

Duval: It is imperative that the sales tax proposal to be voted on shortly be passed. Our schools are the basis for providing the resources for the continued thoughtful growth of our county.

Moore: I voted for the Penny for Projects. I see it as a win for the schools. Not only do we get the half penny, but the county is giving us about half of their half, as they are spending it on making the schools safer for the children.

Neuhausen: First, we have to be clear that it is not a one-cent increase, but actually a half-cent; the other is a half-cent sales tax continuation of the existing sales tax that is about to sunset. I did not like the idea of combining the two, as I believe it puts the school sales tax portion at risk. A majority of the public tends to be sympathetic to children and schools, and I believe that had they remained separate, the school portion would have been approved easily.

I am working and informing people of the need to have the proposed continuation and increase passed. The revenue generated from this will make up $7 million to $8 million of the annual budget for the schools, and the county have listed a number of projects that have prioritized our school system to be addressed initially.

4. With a tight budget and a list of needed capital improvement projects and technological upgrades, should the school board consider raising the property tax rate? Why or why not?

Covell: No, I don’t believe an ad valorem increase is warranted this year. Before any tax increase is considered, the school board needs to request a complete audit of all schools in the county. The audit should detail the condition of each school, the age of each school, the age of equipment at each school and the current enrollment at each school. The audit should also contain the operational costs and maintenance-repair costs to fairly assess the condition of each facility. After the audit is complete, school members will have full assessment of the condition of the school district.

The audit would assist school board members in determining the best future for Hernando County schools to plan capital improvements and technological upgrades.

Duval: The school board needs to ensure first and foremost that every dollar being expended is a wise and prudent choice of funds. The board needs to look at all options and never summarily dismiss any option based solely on perceived information.

Moore: Raising the property taxes at this time, in my opinion, is not possible. When the Penny for Projects passes I don’t feel we should put anything else on the people.

Neuhausen: I hesitate to endorse a property rate increase; however, if we roll back the last decrease, it will help reduce the deficit. With that being said, when home values start to increase again, we need to ensure we work on lowering the rate once again and, more importantly, make sure we don’t overspend or expect that the revenue will continue coming in.

We have schools that are in need of repair, regardless of how or why or what we should have done prior, we need to implement repairs, improvements and upgrades. This will take money, and one source of revenue is property taxes. This needs to be seriously considered so that we can meet state requirements and ensure our children are given every opportunity to excel.

5. What is your opinion of the new Common Core Standards that replaced the FCAT?

Covell: I believe federal government should never have the ability to take control of local education.

The Florida Legislature implemented numerous changes to Common Core, creating “Florida Standards,” which is unique to our state.

I believe now is the time to stop complaining. It is time to take a positive look at implementing Florida Standards into our school district.

If modifications need to be made for our local version of Florida Standards, as a school board member I will lobby the Florida Legislature to implement change for our District.

Now is the time for school board members to set up public hearings to select instructional materials custom-designed for the education of our children.

Duval: The Common Core standards, now known as the Florida Standards, do provide a measure of accountability but should not be taken as a singular focus. The school board does not have options of approving or not approving the tests — that is a state decision. What can be done by the board is to ensure that the district is giving the teachers an expanded avenue of selecting the materials and supplies that are needed for teaching the curriculum to be tested.

Moore: I’m not in favor of Common Core standards in subjects. Each state must change some of the standards to fit their states. What is important in one state may not be important in another state. Basic math and reading is the same.

Neuhausen: The Common Core standards were adopted four years ago. As a result, many students and parents such as myself have had difficulty understanding and working with the educational portion of these standards. I have an electrical engineering degree. I have taken four levels of calculus, physics, statics, thermodynamics, and I struggled to understand the middle school math my children were trying to learn.

We do not need to change the method of teaching math, we need to understand that every child is different, and learns differently.

Forcing standards such as these limits what teachers can help students accomplish.

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