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Schools chief race divides leadership

Many administrators are taking sides as two top district officials campaign to be superintendent.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2000


INVERNESS -- When David Hickey formally announced on Thursday that he was challenging his boss for the right to run the Citrus County school system, he was not standing alone.

Bunched around Hickey in a crowded restaurant were administrators representing nearly every aspect of the district, from food service to personnel to the finance office. School secretaries and maintenance staff also attended, as did a couple of principals.

Hickey was introduced by Roberta Long, another top district administrator who, like Hickey, is leaving the county office to be a school principal at the end of June.

In the crowd were former school officials, including former Superintendent Carl Austin, who said that such evidence of an internal uprising was unprecedented in the school system.

Hickey's run for superintendent raises questions about whether the splintered administration can function into the next school year. The announcement also comes just weeks after Superintendent Pete Kelly suffered several stunning defeats by the School Board on important issues, setting the scene for a political race that already is coming to a boil.

When Hickey and Long, key members of Kelly's central leadership team, decided to leave the county office several months ago, they said they were heading back to schools because they missed seeing children on a daily basis. Kelly said then he believed that motivation.

Instead, they chose to publicly challenge their boss.

When asked last week about that change in direction, Kelly said, "I'd just rather not touch that right now. I'm trying to believe that they told me what was in their hearts back then."

In his campaign announcement, Hickey also steered clear of direct shots at Kelly, although he made plenty of references to problems he has seen under Kelly's administration. Chief among his complaints was the fact that he and other district staff weren't able to do their jobs because Kelly didn't include them in decisionmaking.

He also took shots at Kelly's extensive travel, his strategic plan, employee morale problems and Kelly's handling of school finances.

The criticisms are not new. Also in the race for superintendent are Chris Becker, a former teachers union president and regular critic of district policies; Tom Mullins, an educational consultant who has blasted Kelly's handling of the district budget; and Ansel Briggs, an activist who also has criticized Kelly.

The difference now is that these newest critics and their supporters are the same people who still will be working beside Kelly in the coming months to close down the current school year and open the new one.

The latest developments also draw a clear dividing line between camps, and school officials and employees will likely have to choose sides.

Voters will have plenty of questions as they analyze the latest developments. Is Kelly really the entrenched administration candidate that people want to replace? Does Hickey represent the political old guard?

"This is going to be the highest-profile race in the district," said School Board member Mark Stone, who is leaving his seat to run for tax collector. "It's the hardest job in the county, because you're messing with the two things that people care about the most: their kids and their money."

A familiar-looking contest begins to take shape

When Kelly ran for superintendent four years ago, he received campaign contributions from county and school administrators including Austin, Hickey, principals and many other people who attended Hickey's gathering last week.

Asked at the time whether he was the status quo candidate, Kelly's response was, "People who say that don't know me very well."

But Kelly also said at the time that he wanted support from the district's top officials.

Now Kelly is the district's top official. Many of the core team of campaigners who helped Kelly win office now serve on Hickey's team. Kelly's approach has allowed him to fulfill campaign promises, but it also has cost him the support of many key administrators.

That alienation may be the central theme of Hickey's campaign.

The makeup of Hickey's support system isn't lost on Becker, who will face the assistant superintendent in the September Democratic primary.

"I see the same people supporting David Hickey who last time supported Pete Kelly," Becker said. "So the question is, do we want the same ideas generated by that group, do we want the same people in that inner circle at the top, or do we want a new direction?"

Also not lost on Becker is the familiarity of the platform.

"I find what Mr. Hickey is saying is exactly the same thing that I've been saying all along," he said.

Mullins, who will face Kelly in the Republican primary, also recognizes part of Hickey's platform.

Last week, Mullins called for Kelly's resignation based on personal research that he says shows Kelly has driven the district to the edge of bankruptcy. He asked for help from the Republican Executive Committee to do something about the situation and was promptly told that the committee's role was not to promote one Republican over another.

Instead, the committee's chairman, Weston Stow, suggested that Mullins prove his points in the public arena. Kelly, school finance director Sara Perez and Hickey all acknowledged that the district has faced tough financial times, but they all said bankruptcy was not where the district was headed.

Mullins had been so adamant about his beliefs that he said he would resign his candidacy if he was proven wrong. Late last week, he said that he had not decided his future yet, but that he had been strongly encouraged to stay in the race by Hickey and Becker, as well as others.

"I expected Dave to say things a little more directly (at the gathering), but I thought about it and I understand that you don't criticize your boss directly and keep your job," Mullins said.

Whatever he decides about his political future, Mullins said he would keep doing research on the school district for now.

"I haven't encountered this much whitewash and corruption in a long, long time," he said. "I'll tell anyone who is running that I'll be watching."

Superintendent faces attacks from within

When Hickey spoke about the need to value and include employees, his words struck chords.

"Key staff must be involved, and I can facilitate that in this district," he said. He noted that, under Kelly's management style, "Key staff at all levels has not been used in decisionmaking."

When Hickey complained about the district's financial roller coaster, he noted, "This has resulted to the district having to make budget cuts in three of the past four years in order to balance the budget at year's end."

Hickey advocated a planned approach to the crises facing the district rather than just "constantly reacting."

Criticism of Kelly's extensive travel crept out when Hickey responded to a question. He said lobbying in Tallahassee was important but not all the other travel. When he spoke about the need to be visible in the classrooms across the district, an employee noted that when Austin was superintendent, he always was visiting schools.

"That's because I didn't travel nearly as much," Austin responded from the audience.

Hickey said, "I don't need a strategic plan," attacking one of the key projects Kelly has undertaken as superintendent.

Such words draw a clear line in the sand and, as various school officials step to one side or the other, there could be far-reaching implications.

"I know that some administrators were asked to be at that (Hickey's) press conference and they chose not to go because they didn't want to be choosing sides," Becker said. "Some people are trying to stay neutral because nobody knows what the outcome of this is going to be. If they throw their support toward a particular candidate, are they going to have a job at the end of it?"

Briggs, who is running for superintendent without a party affiliation, said the rift has created a fine example of why a political race for superintendent is a problem.

"The two main administrators in our school system . . . have split the school system down the middle, and then you have Mr. Mullins crying, "Oh my God, the system's bankrupt,' and people are running to put their children in private schools," Briggs said.

Briggs said that the time has come to again discuss making the job an appointed rather than elected one and that all the candidates need to focus on issues related to children rather than adults. And he said voters need to look at a candidate on the outside of the system because someone on the outside could have an allegiance to simply doing the best for students.

"How do we ever become a world-class school system unless you do something different?" he said.

Trying to keep the district functioning during race

Kelly has been low-key in his response. He has declined to talk about any feelings of betrayal or disappointment.

Unlike his predecessors, Kelly has had trouble assembling a loyal administrative team to work with him and close ranks during times of trouble. In fact, he has long maintained that he didn't expect to garner support from everyone in the district, as he has made tough decisions he hoped would move the school system ahead.

Kelly said he wants to counter the financial information Mullins has been spreading. He will campaign on what has really happened in the district and what he has tried to accomplish.

"There seems to be a lot of bad information and disinformation out there, and we're working to correct that," Kelly said.

And then there is the job of simply keeping the system moving forward during the busy summer months as the district closes the books from the current fiscal year, prepares to open a new school and makes all the arrangements necessary for a smooth school opening in August.

Meanwhile, in two facing offices in an upstairs wing of the administration office where they share a secretary and will regularly run into one another until the end of the month, Kelly and Hickey still are working together on the same projects.

"It could cause a lot of difficulty supporting a candidate at the beginning of the school year, but I know Mr. Hickey and Mr. Kelly are still working side by side on a number of issues, and I hear that they're keeping this out of the workplace," Becker said.

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