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New board member hooked on education

Lou Miele hopes his desire to help students and a passion for teaching outshine his winning the seat by default.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 25, 2002


INVERNESS -- Lou Miele was feeling blue that afternoon with eight of his 12 students either suspended or sick -- and another under arrest.

He wondered: Is this the right profession for me? Why can't I reach these children?

Then one of the three remaining students in the class handed him a note just as school was being dismissed.

The student's mother had written to praise Miele for his influence. The boy was finally getting focused, and she considered Miele a beloved part of their family.

It brought Miele to tears then and still does.

Making a difference for students is what hooked Miele on education in the first place, he said, and it is what drove him to seek the District 1 School Board seat.

Now after winning the job by default when Don Bates backed out of the race Aug. 16, Miele, 43, hopes that his passion for education and for helping children will show through quickly to the public that didn't get the chance to select him at the polls.

"I get the sense that maybe the public feels gypped out of getting to make the choice," Miele said. "I want them to know that they have someone in there who is dedicated and able to do the job that needs to be done."

Miele spoke to the Times last week from his office at the Withlacoochee Technical Institute. He took leave from his job as an exceptional student education teacher to run for the board but has been a regular visitor at the school helping out as a volunteer since classes started two weeks ago. Now he hopes to go back to work until he takes office.

"It would be great to get a paycheck through November," he said.

Slowly the shock of the unusual circumstances of his election has been wearing off. In the days after Bates withdrew, congratulatory messages were met with apologetic comments from Miele. But when a co-worker congratulated him late last week, he was finally able to manage a smile and a thank you.

Soft-spoken and low-key, Miele predicted he would not make a big splash when he does take office. He plans to cram like a student the night before finals on details ranging from the school improvement process to the daunting school district budget before he is sworn in.

The public doesn't know much about Miele either, as the campaign ended before many of the larger public forums could take place. He has not had a high profile in the community and his only community group involvement has been working in the past with the Make a Wish Foundation for ill children. He remains fiercely private about his family and hopes to protect them from the limelight he knows his new job will bring him. He is married and has two young children.

Miele will take the seat of Carol Snyder, who decided not to run. Bates emerged as a force shortly after Snyder took office two years ago. Snyder stirred up controversy by seeking to end the traditional practice of making nearly every School Board meeting open with a strictly Christian prayer. She was blasted for her move, and Bates led a petition drive against her.

Then he decided to run for her job and in the process, sought support and donations from those who signed his petition. He quoted the Bible and urged people to help so that the "God guys" would win.

The day the letter became public, the Times learned that Bates had been arrested in 1994 and charged with indecent exposure for masturbating in his car at the Crystal River Mall. When confronted with the information, Bates decided to withdraw from the race, filing a formal letter with the Supervisor of Elections Office last week.

"It would have been a good race," Miele said. "He does have the qualifications and he did seem to have his heart in the right place most of the time."

Miele has expressed sympathy for Bates and has some basic understanding of the former candidate's shock when he learned that the Times would be reporting on his past arrest. Miele had a similar reaction when he was first asked about his two arrests on charges of driving under the influence more than 10 years ago.

The second arrest was a turning point for Miele, he said. He gave up drinking.

Miele is humble about any special qualities he might have to prepare him for the job of School Board member. Instead, he focused on his experience as a classroom teacher.

"I've been in education eight or nine years," he said. "I've been in our schools. I've talked to our students, our parents, our teachers. I have a good working relationship with administrators. I'm passionate about what I do, and I think that's important."

Education was not Miele's first career choice. Before his arrival in Citrus County in 1991, he had tried careers in real estate and as a painting contractor. When he moved here, he thought he might start painting again. But when he learned that he would earn a third of what he had in Connecticut, he decided to try something different.

He began work as a teacher's aide at Rock Crusher Elementary School.

"I became attached to a couple of students, special ed students," he said. "I was hooked and I thought: Why not go back to school?"

Miele earned a bachelor's degree and a master's, focusing on exceptional student education and especially students with learning disabilities.

"What has kept me hooked is that I'm working with children who have not for the most part been all that successful," he said. "Their self-esteem is down. But when I'm successful at changing that, that is powerful. That's dynamite."

He grimaces a bit when he talks about having to leave that direct student involvement behind, but brightens when he shifts to a discussion about his chance to affect many more students by serving on the School Board.

An observer of the board for the past several months, Miele said he believes he knows the role a board member must play compared with the job of superintendent David Hickey.

"I'm going to work as a team and get things done. I'll have to stand up for what I believe, but I have to support Mr. Hickey too," Miele said. "Still, I'm not going to back down to Mr. Hickey if I disagree with something."

Miele knows Hickey because he hired Miele in his first teaching job at Crystal River Middle School after Miele completed his degree.

"I hired him into the special needs area. The gentleman responded and did a very nice job," Hickey said. "I truly believe he has the interest of kids in mind and that, as far as I'm concerned, is a prerequisite."

Before his campaign suddenly ended, Miele talked about the need for higher teacher pay, his desire to trim fat from the budget and the need to build staff morale. From a teacher's perspective, he knows that board members are rarely seen in the schools and he said he would work to personally show teachers they are appreciated.

"Anything that will help teacher morale is important," he said.

Though Miele quips that his wife, Julie, a teacher at Forest Ridge Elementary, might disagree, he believes he is blessed with common sense, and that will help him be an effective board member.

"I have the ability sometimes to see through all the stuff and apply my common sense to the situation," he said.

He also said he might add a sense of humor to the board. Miele said as a student he was the class clown.

But the quick wit doesn't mean he won't take the job seriously.

"I hope I can live up to the expectations that people have for me," he said. "And I hope I can help. That doesn't sound too lame, does it?"

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