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Looking back, without regrets

A departing School Board member reflects on her short tenure and the prayer controversy she quickly sparked upon taking office.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 17, 2002


INVERNESS -- Carol Snyder stood at the dais, reminding the small group gathered for last week's School Board meeting that November is an eventful month featuring elections, Veterans Day and Thanksgiving.

She asked everyone to reflect on the meaning of those events. The room fell silent.

There was no talk of God, no Bible-carrying critics, no pagan chanting to a goddess, no uniformed deputy standing by to keep order.

As Snyder led her last opening exercise at her last meeting as a School Board member, the impact of her short tenure on the board was obvious.

During her very first meeting two years ago, Snyder broached a taboo subject, igniting a firestorm of controversy that dominated School Board business for months. She suggested that, since Citrus County has a diverse population, it made sense to have diverse opening prayers rather than the old tradition of nearly all opening prayers being overtly Christian.

Last week, as Snyder reflected on her time on the board, she said she was glad to spark a needed community debate on diversity, even if it meant she was not able to accomplish other goals she had set when she ran for office.

"The only thing I regret about the whole prayer issue is that we couldn't seem to get past it to get to anything else," she said. "But in some ways, the issue was so important that I really don't regret what I did."

Speaking from the new home she and her husband moved to several weeks ago, Snyder, 66, said she knew her time on the board would be defined by the one issue.

"I'm not at all sad about that because it is very important in this community and the whole nation to know that diversity is not a dirty word. People are entitled to their beliefs," Snyder said. "We've made some changes here. It started some people thinking."

But Snyder recognizes that the debate that followed did have some negative consequences.

"Could it have been done better? Maybe. But I don't know if it would have gotten a better outcome and maybe there would not have been so much community discussion. . . . I'm happy with the way it did come out. At least some people were awakened," she said.

Snyder broached the subject in November 2000, and the backlash came fast and furious. Some people supported Snyder, but others were harsh critics. Hundreds of people packed a public hearing in February 2001 to express their feelings.

Dunnellon resident Charles Schrader once interrupted the board's Christian prayer with a supplication of his own to a pagan goddess. Soon a sheriff's deputy became a regular fixture at board meetings.

The issue eventually fizzled. The board's agenda now lists an opening "exercise" instead of an invocation. Board members take turns leading the exercise. On Tuesday, at Snyder's last meeting, fellow board member Sandra "Sam" Himmel ceded her spot in the rotation to Snyder.

Snyder said she has been contacted by some of the people who adamantly opposed her viewpoint during the debate. They told her they never fully understood her perspective and, once they did, they no longer disagreed.

"I have no hard feelings," she said. "There were several things that happened that were for the community's good, but they were hurtful to individuals. I am sorry about that."

Still, Snyder has maintained that her choice to not run for re-election had nothing to do with the prayer debate and the strong public sentiment against her viewpoint. (Lou Miele won the open seat by default in September. His opponent, Don Bates, withdrew from the race when he learned details about his arrest for indecent exposure were going to be published.)

Snyder said she didn't run again because she didn't have time to devote to another term. Her husband, Robert, has been ill and has been her priority.

"I have great empathy for those on the board," she said. "I walked out of there (Tuesday night) and came home with everything lifted off of me. I slept better than I had in six months."

She said she feels some accomplishment since she was able to push other issues on which she had first campaigned in 2000. Snyder is a strong believer in finding ways other than expulsion to discipline students who break rules. She believes in that so strongly that she even tutored one child who was expelled for possession of drugs until the middle-school girl was able to return to school.

"I am happy that the board is looking at many alternatives right now. I'm not that responsible for that," she said, crediting board member Patience Nave for her hard work on that area. Snyder also was excited about some of the plans for building a new and expanded home for the district's alternative school, known as the Renaissance Center.

"I'm really happy to see something happening with the Renaissance Center. But I hope that they do it right and not just look for a place to put them into," she said.

Snyder is a lifelong educator who has taught at every level from elementary school to college. She currently teaches a class at Central Florida Community College. While her tenure on the Citrus School Board may have been short, she served 16 years on the board in Celina, Ohio. She said the experience here was very different because of the different laws in Florida.

"The curriculum and the students are very much the same," she said. But with Florida's focus on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, "I don't think the teachers felt the same level of stress" in Ohio.

One real difference was in the roles of the board and the superintendent.

"In Ohio, with an appointed superintendent, every decision was followed. . . . I found that was not true here. Even if there was a vote and a decision, it really didn't mean anything," she said.

Snyder sometimes found herself in conflict with superintendent David Hickey, and she said she wishes she could have improved communications between the board and Hickey. During her two years on the board, she often complained about feeling out of the loop on important information.

Despite the rocky start to her term, Snyder said she thinks she ended up an effective board member.

Her colleagues presented her with a plaque at her last meeting and chairwoman Pat Deutschman spoke about how she had "made our lives colorful."

She went on to credit Snyder with having the "guts" to bring up difficult issues no one else would touch. "You were willing to stand up for what you believe and put up with the consequences," Deutschman said.

Snyder thanked the board members for their kindness and noted: "I wish you all the luck in the world, and I don't envy your positions."

She said she wasn't going to disappear entirely. Instead, she planned to return to meetings in the future as a citizen to share her insights.

"Three minutes," interjected School Board attorney Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick, reminding Snyder how long citizens were allowed to speak.

Snyder said her new role will suit her.

"I think I'm a gadfly," Snyder said. "That's where I can be effective. I plan to come back and ask some questions. . . . If I plan ahead, I can say a whole lot in three minutes."

The retiring board member, who plans to spend more time in Ohio, keep teaching and enjoy her seven children and 23 grandchildren, is reluctant to tout her accomplishments. "I really believe the people are a better judge of that than I am," she said.

And as she stepped down, the longtime teacher offered this assessment of the system she has helped lead for the past two years:

"I think there are some very good things happening in the school system and we have some very good people," she said. "But yeah, I'd say we have problems, more than our share that need to be corrected. That's why I'll be back."

-- Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 564-3621.

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