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    Vouchers sharpen lines in race

    In Escambia County, the governor and attorney general take opposing sides in the school superintendent election.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 16, 2000


    PENSACOLA -- Escambia County School Superintendent Jim May and the man who hopes to take his job in November, Jim Paul, sat at opposite ends of a long table at a candidate forum last week.

    When it came time for May to answer a question on vouchers, the lanky, 53-year-old son of a pig farmer stood, took a breath and started talking just as fast as he could. May had two minutes before moderator Taris Savell's egg timer was set to "ding" him into silence.

    May described flaws in Florida's testing program. The effect it has on the classroom. He explained what's wrong with school vouchers. Pointed to differences between himself and Paul. He listed all the . . .

    Ding!

    May smiled at the ladies of the Sisterhood of Temple Beth El and took his seat.

    Escambia's school superintendent has been doing a lot of explaining lately as he attempts to do what no school chief in this Panhandle county has done in 20 years: win re-election. By all accounts this is a lousy time to try to break that streak.

    "I guess things have been pretty crazy around here," said School Board member Cary Stidham, in a classic understatement.

    One board member was removed from office (and later reinstated) for alleged violations of the public records law. Another board member, who regularly criticizes his colleagues on his Web site, came under fire for racially insensitive comments. Teachers recently picketed for a salary increase that never came.

    There have been investigations and ethics complaints. A recent school district news release -- among notices of school fundraisers and employees of the month -- bore this headline: "Grand Jury Says: No Criminal Violations!"

    On top of all that, there's the indignity of school vouchers.

    Of the state's 3,500 schools, only two were labeled chronic failures eligible for vouchers in 1999. Both schools were in Pensacola. May had to implement a program he didn't believe in.

    He let Gov. Jeb Bush know he disagreed with the accountability plan -- not the concept, but the details of the plan.

    Amid all this turmoil comes a challenge from a soft-spoken high school social studies teacher with friends in high places.

    In August, Bush came to town to lend Jim Paul an endorsement and some fund-raising star power. May was able to counter that when Attorney General Bob Butterworth, the state's highest-ranking Democrat, came to town last week to endorse his re-election bid.

    "I've never seen anything like it," said Supervisor of Elections Bonnie Jones, who has spent 29 years in the elections office. "I don't think they normally make endorsements in these kinds of local races."

    Indeed they don't. Bush and Butterworth, who occasionally get involved in statewide races, represent unusually serious political firepower for a local schools race. But, as anyone in Pensacola will tell you, this is not your typical local race.

    Some say it's the school accountability/school vouchers battle all over again.

    "In some ways, this race may resemble a referendum over the governor's A+

    Plan," said Paul, who supports the governor's plan with as much vigor as May opposes it. "That was a very divisive, very important issue. This election is going to say something about that."

    For a while, the Escambia County schools were ground zero in the state and national debate over school accountability and vouchers. The two Pensacola schools were Florida's only voucher schools, and Florida had the nation's only statewide voucher program.

    The New York Times wrote stories. Japanese television sought interviews.

    Things got better. The voucher schools dropped the failing label and got state school recognition money for academic gains. Nearly a quarter of the district schools earned an A rating from the state this year. There were no F-rated schools in the district.

    "Something right has been happening for children in Escambia County," May said at a luncheon last week. "Wouldn't you think we'd be getting wild support?"

    Part of the problem is what teachers union director Bob Husbands calls "the constant drumbeat of negative publicity" -- the financial problems, the School Board infighting and the national attention for all the wrong reasons.

    Another part of the problem, May says, is that along the road to academic improvement, he did something that could cost him dearly. He publicly disagreed with the governor.

    "Some of those things went against my very grain and my beliefs as an educator," May said recently. "But I upheld the law. I did everything the governor and (education) commissioner asked me to do."

    May wasn't the only educator or superintendent in the state who resisted the governor's accountability plan. But May was the one in the spotlight, and his opinions made things complicated.

    "He's been so vocal, I think he made the governor angry," said board member Stidham, a Republican.

    May said he knew things would not go smoothly shortly after his schools were declared eligible for vouchers. Representatives from the governor's office and the Florida Department of Education came by to talk about implementing the new program.

    "They put me in this room," May said, pointing to the conference room adjoining his office. "Now, this is my office, but they told me to go in that room, and they shut the door." Without anyone from his staff present, May said, he was told what he was going to do.

    "I haven't forgotten it," May said. "I thought, "This is what an interrogation is like.' "

    In the months that followed, May was required to appear before the Florida Cabinet, sitting as the Board of Education, to give regular reports on academic progress at the voucher schools. He did so. He also let the Cabinet members know that he disagreed with significant parts of the governor's plan.

    Butterworth, who serves on the Cabinet along with Bush, said May's appearances made an impression on him.

    "He said, "I don't agree, but I'm going to play within the rules.' And he did it," Butterworth recalled. "That struck a chord with me."

    Through a spokeswoman, Bush said he supports Paul because "he shares the governor's core values and dedication to improve Florida's schools."

    Others, including Paul, agree that a dislike for Jim May might have something to do with the governor's interest in Escambia's local politics.

    "I think it's just because Jim May told the governor that what he's doing is wrong," said Pasco School Superintendent John Long, who contributed $100 to May's re-election campaign.

    Jim Paul looks like the social studies teacher that he is. He drives a 1991 gray Dodge Dynasty with more than 200,000 miles on it, and hopes it will last him a bit longer.

    After 17 years of teaching, Paul, 52, has developed a reputation in the classroom. "He's a heck of a teacher," May said of his opponent.

    But Paul is not a political neophyte in over his head.

    He worked in the U.S. Department of Education under President Ronald Reagan, and later worked with Clarence Thomas in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He ran for Congress and lost.

    In 1994, he managed the congressional campaign for Joe Scarborough, and Scarborough won. Paul's friendship with Scarborough has helped boost his own campaign this year.

    "The governor likes Joe Scarborough. Joe Scarborough is a friend of mine. Joe Scarborough got us together," Paul said, explaining how he got Bush to show up for his fundraiser breakfast.

    When Paul hears May talk about the district's problems, he responds with a Reaganism: "There he goes again."

    "The superintendent blames the governor for vouchers; he blames the Legislature for funding," Paul said. "Everything is someone else's fault."

    Paul isn't buying it. He is banking on the appeal of a fresh start. He talks about an "education crisis" in Escambia and vows that the schools can perform better. He wants to bring in forensic auditors to comb through the finances, and to find a way to give teachers raises.

    May counters by pointing to Paul's inexperience in school administration; he notes that Paul is not qualified to be a principal in Escambia County.

    In an interview after a candidate forum, Paul talks about something he thinks could be an ace in the hole -- something that could help in the election, and after, if he's elected.

    "I have the support of the governor and (state Rep.) Jerry Maygarden," Paul said. "They have something at stake here. They have made a commitment. If I fail, part of them has failed. They want me to succeed."

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