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Who will lead our schools?

By BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000


INVERNESS -- In June, when David Hickey stepped to the microphone to give the first formal speech of his political career, he was surrounded by school officials past and present.

Among the prominent guests supporting the former assistant superintendent was Carl Austin.

Austin was superintendent between 1985 and 1995, when he took early retirement. For nine years before he began serving in elected office, Austin was the top appointed educator in the district under the previous superintendent, Roger Weaver.

During Hickey's announcement, Austin noted how unprecedented it was for a sitting superintendent -- Pete Kelly, in this case -- to be challenged by a former top aide. It never happened to him. In fact, Austin never had to run at all: There were never any challengers.

Austin has appeared several other times at political events, always close by Hickey's campaign manager Roberta Long. Austin and Long are engaged to be married.

Austin and Long say there is nothing more to Austin's involvement in the Hickey campaign. Austin said that, to spend time with his fiancee, he must go where she is. And these days, Long is at political forums and other campaign functions supporting Hickey.

Hickey said he is own man and that Austin represents the past while he hopes to move the district into the future.

But opponents say there is something else happening here.

They say that a vote for Hickey is a vote for Austin and a vote to resurrect a style of management that the district can do without.

Chris Becker, who lost to Hickey in the Democratic primary last month, isn't supporting Hickey or incumbent Kelly. He's supporting Ansel Briggs, who has no party affiliation.

If Hickey wins, Becker said, "It will be another four years of Austinesque-style leadership because of his ties. That would do nothing but bring this county to its knees. . . . I think we're ready for a change."

Briggs also said he worries about Austin's involvement in Hickey's campaign.

"We're talking about the old guard again," Briggs said. "To me that just goes to show you how entrenched politics are in our schools and who suffers . . .the children."

Kelly received support from Austin and Long four years ago. Many of Hickey's other supporters also previously served in Kelly's camp. Long now says she made a mistake in supporting Kelly because he didn't possess the management skills necessary to run the district and has hurt the system.

Kelly has said that he no longer has the support of the old power base because when he bucked the "business as usual" approach.

"I don't think Carl Austin himself wants to be in the district office," Kelly said. "But I think he's involved in David's race."

Kelly said, "I think a vote for David is a vote for a similar style that Carl Austin had, one that did not have as many people involved in making decisions."

Hickey has criticized Kelly for that very fault: not involving enough people when making important decisions. But Kelly said the criticism is not warranted.

He pointed to a variety of committees he has formed and worked with. "While I've been portrayed as making all the decisions, I don't make all the decisions around here."

So, how deep are the ties between Austin and Hickey?

Long has given $1,000 to Hickey's campaign. Austin has not given Hickey money, campaign records showed. Long, Hickey and Austin all say that Austin did not encourage Hickey to run and that Austin will not play a role in Hickey's administration if he is elected.

"It's not fair to link him (Austin) to this campaign," Long said. She noted she has known Hickey a long time and was supporting him because she believed he would provide a needed change.

Long said she became personally involved with Austin last year and that he did not want her to run for superintendent, even though she has the credentials as a school principal and school administrator. She joked that Austin also wasn't thrilled with her running Hickey's campaign because she would also spend considerable time handling those duties when she wasn't busy with her main job of being principal at Homosassa Elementary School.

"We want a personal life," Long said.

Long also said Austin didn't want to be involved in politics anymore. He was more interested in traveling, fishing and spending time with her.

But while Austin said he did not push Hickey to run, he is supporting him. Austin said he still feels strong ties to the district where he worked so hard and he has not liked what he has seen from Kelly's administration.

"It's just dirty politics" to pull his name into the race, Austin said. "The Austin era brought this sleepy little school system through a difficult time . . . and it would have been more difficult if we didn't have a CEO then who knew what he was doing."

As to Kelly's tenure, Austin said, "This superintendent has reversed this place to a period of time I don't recall. . . . What he has done has been hurtful. . . . It's very hurtful to me to see the public being snookered."

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