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Promises challenge schools' top official

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2002

To win an elected office, some people will promise just about anything. Then they take office and develop chronic cases of amnesia.

We troublemakers in the media, however, gum things up because we keep our notes. If nothing else, they make for interesting reading when the new officeholders run into problems. It's illuminating to see how they react when the hypothetical becomes reality.

Let's look at, say, school superintendent David Hickey and how he has dealt recently with the challenge of filling a vacancy at Crystal River High School.

The open job was assistant principal and the chain of command calls for the principal to make a recommendation to the superintendent. There is supposed to be some chatter before the name is moved on because once someone is officially recommended, that person has a legal right to the job.

Principal Steve Myers wanted Earl Bramlett, a longtime teacher and legendary former football coach, to get the job. There's nothing wrong with that on its face; Bramlett is an experienced educator and a fine gentleman. After many years of molding testosterone-crazed teenagers into disciplined football squads, he is a natural for a job that calls for applying those skills schoolwide.

Trouble was, during his campaign in 2000, Hickey spoke strongly about the need to develop young administrators who could move into principal posts as the old guard retired.

A lot of ambitious people in the district took him at his word, worked to get him elected and got the training they needed to be ready when the positions opened. For years, the running joke has been that to get ahead in this school system, you had to have been a football coach. Those days, the young turks thought, were now over.

So, an assistant principalship comes open, 11 people apply, and the job goes to -- a former football coach.

Not only that, but the plan called for him to keep his activities director job, and the extra pay that comes with it.

What's a guy to do? Be true to his campaign rhetoric and tell the principal that for the good of the district, he should select one of the up-and-comers over someone nearing retirement; or, defer to the principal and say that it's a school-based decision, thereby making that campaign pledge meaningless?

Bramlett took Hickey off the hook by pulling his name from consideration late last week after a tempest erupted. However, Hickey was adamant that he was not going to block the principal's recommendation. "I don't hire 20 principals and then turn around and make hiring decisions for them," he said.

Why, then, bother to lead on those staffers who believed that Hickey actually would take a role in hiring for key positions?

The situation is not unique and a disturbing pattern is emerging. Hickey has had other opportunities to put his campaign words into action and failed to do so.

Last year, several angry black residents blasted Hickey for bypassing a qualified black woman for an administrative position even though during the campaign he vowed to include more minorities in his hires. The disappointments go beyond hiring. During the campaign, Hickey blasted the incumbent, Pete Kelly, for keeping his own counsel too much. He didn't involve others in the decisionmaking, said Hickey, who at the time was Kelly's second in command.

Candidate Hickey said: "I have as principal always had an open-door policy for students, teachers, staff and parents. I will continue that with all of the stakeholders of the Citrus County school system as their superintendent."

I guess the school board members don't count as stakeholders. Repeatedly, they have complained that Hickey keeps them in the dark on important information regarding the district. Their patience is wearing thin. Hickey the candidate also blasted Kelly for low morale among workers, blaming his boss for the extended employee contract negotiations and the formation of new unions.

As superintendent, Kelly attended a critical negotiating session with the teachers union, got on the computer, worked the spreadsheets and came up with two years' worth of contracts at one time. Facing the same challenge a year ago, Hickey suspended negotiations with all of the unions. None of them has a new contract.

Hickey is hardly the first candidate to be tripped up by campaign pledges once he took office, and circumstances sometimes demand that an officeholder change course (see: "Read my lips: No new taxes.")

But Hickey made some pointed criticisms and promises that helped get him elected, and it's not too much for the public -- and his employees -- to expect him to at least try to honor them.

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