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School finance director quits

By ROBERT KING

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 24, 2000


BROOKSVILLE -- The timing of Sara Perez's resignation as the budget and finance director of the Hernando County schools might look strange. Even Perez and school district officials admit that.

But they agree that it has everything to do with Perez's family commitments in California and nothing to do with her performance since she began work here three months ago.

"I'm torn. I really wanted to be here for the long haul. I just really love it here," Perez said Monday.

Perez took over the finance job -- and the $173-million budget that goes with it -- in July.

In September, she told Superintendent John Sanders there was a $5.7-million gap between the paper budget she inherited and the working budget in the district computer.

Then, two weeks ago, Perez, 43, told Sanders that something had come up that might require her to move back to California, where her three children live. A week later things had improved, and it looked as if she could stay.

But then on Thursday, Perez walked into Sanders' office and told him she had to quit. Her resignation letter, submitted since then, said she must return to California to assume custody of her three children "as soon as possible."

The announcement comes while Perez is in the middle of a sweeping review that has her going over the budget with a fine-tooth comb. She has been concerned that the district might be set up to spend $5.7-million more than it will take in during the current school year.

As a result, the school district has stopped paying overtime, installed strict new purchasing limits and put a moratorium on hiring except for critical classroom jobs.

Perez said she's not leaving because the job is too big or the challenge too hard. Nor is she leaving because she is convinced the school district is spiraling into financial ruin. "I can see the other side of it too, where people might be trying to read more into than it really is," she said.

Perez says she will remain in her job until Dec. 15 because she has been able to find a temporary solution to her family situation. By then she hopes the district's financial house will be in order and her successor in place. Perez said her personal situation is such that she cannot move her children to Florida. She declined to elaborate.

Sanders said the timing is unfortunate, but he understands her situation.

"I have faith in her word to me. And her word to me is that this is a purely personal thing back in California," he said. "I don't want to lose her. She is doing a fine job."

Edd Poore, the district's personnel director, said he has already begun advertising the job opening in school districts around the state and in departments of education outside Florida. He said he understands Perez's decision, even though others might wonder about the timing and even perceive it as a sign of trouble.

"When it is in fact truly a family situation, I never question those," Poore said.

"I know how it looks. I told (Sanders) how it looks. But that's not how it is in this case."

School Board member Sandra Nicholson said she was aware that family matters might be pulling Perez back to California. Some may be skeptical of the timing, Nicholson said, but she is not.

"I think it is a coincidence," Nicholson said. "I don't blame her for going back."

Perez worked in school finance in California for 20 years before coming to Citrus County in June 1999. In Citrus, she was credited with helping the district build up a hefty reserve after several years of what Perez had termed "roller coaster" finances in the district.

She found the limelight just before leaving when a candidate running against incumbent Citrus Superintendent Pete Kelly claimed Perez had told him the district was headed for bankruptcy.

She denied that but did note the system had been through some tough financial times.

Citrus hired a replacement for Perez, Bruce F. Tinney, last month. But he abruptly announced last week that he will not take the job. Perez said she has no interest in the Citrus vacancy, even if family matters were not drawing her back to California.

Perez, due to earn $70,000 this year in Hernando County, said she does not yet have a job in California.

- Staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report.

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