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Who will lead our schools?

By BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000


INVERNESS -- The three men who want to run Citrus County's public schools for the next four years cite experience as the reason they are the best candidate.

Yet each man has had very different experiences.

Incumbent Pete Kelly, a Republican and career teacher, has served as superintendent the past four years.

David Hickey, a Democrat, is Kelly's previous assistant superintendent and a lifelong educator who has been a teacher, coach, assistant principal and principal.

Then there is Ansel Briggs, an activist and community educator who has grown blueberries, overseen construction jobs and worked many other jobs in between. He has no party affiliation.

Voters on Nov. 7 will select one of them to lead the school system. And experience will be just one of the factors to consider.

Hickey, 56, currently serves as principal of Crystal River Middle School. Before that, he was Kelly's top assistant. He has criticized Kelly's tenure, saying the incumbent failed to involve enough people when making key decisions and sometimes didn't share information with his top administrators, including Hickey.

He said Kelly did a poor job handling employee issues, thus leading to the formation of two new employees unions and protracted contract negotiations with one of those unions.

He also has cited Kelly's failure to form a team. Many administrators have moved into and out of key positions, he noted. And Kelly made headlines when he fired one former assistant superintendent, Tom Maher, in a parking lot.

Hickey said he would create a strong team and build morale and trust. He said he realized some might question why, as assistant superintendent, he didn't work harder to make improvements.

"I was there," Hickey said, "but there was no communication. You've got to give people responsibilities and let them fulfill those responsibilities."

The district's financial situation and what Hickey has called "roller-coaster" budgeting -- up one year, down the next -- also have been the subject of some criticism.

Hickey noted that several years ago Kelly hired 75 new employees early in the year, then cut about the same number of positions from the budget the following year.

He also talks about the need to have integrity in the process of picking key employees and cites the need to continue working on school safety. Hickey proposes establishing a strong dialogue with law enforcement agencies to ensure safety of staff and students.

In the crush of such strong criticism, Kelly has staunchly defended his tenure. Over and over during talks with the public, he has touted the strategic plan he pushed to create using hundreds of students, employees and the public.

Kelly, 58, served on the Inverness City Council and taught at the Withlacoochee Technical Institute before he became superintendent. He has defended the strategic plan because it involved so many people and because it is providing the road map for all the planning currently under way: everything from charting a course for new school construction to curriculum.

Kelly also has formed a committee representing all employees in the district. The committee meets regularly to discuss crucial issues. Top employees have been and continue to be involved in decisionmaking, Kelly insisted.

"I'm not the one making all the decisions. More decisions are being passed around the district than ever before," he said.

As for turnover in key positions, Kelly notes that some people left to run against him, such as Hickey and his campaign manager Roberta Long. Others moved into other departments, left for higher-paying jobs or were encouraged to move on by Kelly, who will not talk about specifics of such personnel decisions.

"I believe in empowering people," Kelly said. "I empowered him (Hickey) to work with principals. . . . I let them go out and do their jobs."

Kelly is strong in his defense of the district's healthy financial situation and is proud of accomplishments such as a zero-tolerance policy for weapons and drugs on school grounds, opening of the Renaissance Center and the $8-million school technology upgrade.

But mostly, Kelly said he is proud that students are achieving more.

With the new policy on school attendance, Kelly said absenteeism is down 42 percent in high schools, 36 percent in middle schools and 28 percent in elementary schools.

The dropout rate has fallen, and students are scoring well in a variety of exams. That includes the state tests that have allowed five of the district's elementary schools to earn "A" grades under the state grading plan.

Briggs looks at the battle going on between Kelly and Hickey and touts the need for voters to consider him as a better option.

Briggs, 61, is a Detroit native who considers himself a community educator and an advocate for people who need help dealing with government or other bureaucracies. He is also an activist, appearing frequently before public boards on a variety of issues.

He has never been employed by the school district and he has vowed to fight to make the job of superintendent an appointed post. He said that would cut down on the divisiveness he sees.

"When you have a seated superintendent and an assistant superintendent running against each other, you have a lot of problems," Briggs said.

Briggs is seen by some as a potential spoiler in the race: Because there are three candidates, the winner may walk away by earning just more than one-third of the votes cast.

The men who lost to Kelly and Hickey in September -- Republican Tom Mullins and Democrat Chris Becker -- are supporting Briggs rather than their parties' representatives.

The Citrus County Education Association, which represents 75 percent of the school district's workers, couldn't decide which candidate to back.

"From kids to adults, we want a change in our system," Briggs said. "We can do better."

Among his ideas, Briggs has said he will establish a very obvious "open-door" policy by removing his office door so he can have complete communication with whoever wants to talk to him. He also said he plans to involve everyone in the district in the process of education, starting with the employees, ranging from the custodians to the teachers.

"Teachers want to have a say so. Everyone wants to feel they're part of a team, but up until now they haven't been part of a cohesive group," Briggs said. As someone who has in the past not always been allowed to address issues or get a response from public officials at School Board meetings, Briggs wants the public to also feel more welcomed and involved.

"We're supposed to be a public school system," he said. "We need more input from the community."

He is critical of Kelly's strategic plan for the tens of thousands of dollars it cost and because he does not believe much has been done with it. "I don't want to wait for world-class schools," Briggs said.

Briggs supports finding new activities for children in the community from building a swimming pool to opening school gymnasiums for public use. He wants the budget to be geared more toward students. And he proposes a districtwide learning agenda that would act as an agreement between teacher, parent and student to accomplish certain educational goals and expect specified scores for meeting those goals.

At a political forum last week for Citrus County high school students, Crystal River High School senior Peter Manzoli asked what weaknesses each candidate possessed that might hinder them doing their job.

Hickey looked at the student, remembering him as a sixth, a seventh and an eighth grader as well as a good student. "I didn't have any weaknesses in helping you," he said.

He did acknowledge he was not a great public speaker.

"Basically I'm an introvert," Kelly said, noting that he had to force himself to interact with crowds. Kelly also noted that his strong convictions can be seen as a weakness or a strength. "You have to have a vision and know where you want to go," he said.

Briggs cited his non-partisan candidacy as hurting him and noted that, through his advocacy work he has "ruffled some feathers."

Known for his beard, which has been trimmed shorter in recent months, and his sometimes-rugged appearance, he also said that some told him that his wife "really cleaned him up."

"Maybe (the appearance) was a weakness," Briggs said. "But my motto is, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em and then beat 'em."

* * *

Where school superintendent candidates Ansel Briggs, David Hickey and Pete Kelly stand on the issues:

Q: Describe the professional relationship you want to forge with the School Board. Do you see yourself as part of a team, an independent player or someone whose job it is to simply carry out what the board collectively sets as policy?

BRIGGS: "As superintendent I would be a team player. I believe the superintendent needs to be able to transform instead of reform, that to be a good leader means inspiring people not commanding. You have to be able to communicate a vision of where we can go together and then ask them to join."

HICKEY: "I want to forge a cooperative, positive relationship with the board. I see myself as part of a team which includes board, Citrus County schools staff, students, parents and community, all working toward a common goal. My role as superintendent is executive while theirs is legislative; yet it is my duty to recommend to the board and provide executive leadership for the system."

KELLY: "The strategic plan as laid out by the community should be the guiding principle for the board and superintendent. The superintendent should be the administrative arm for moving the strategic plan."

Q: Has the focus of our schools swung too much toward teaching to prepare for tests such as the FCAT to produce better overall grades? Is it detracting from the well-rounded education we should be providing for our children?

BRIGGS: "I believe that it is more important to have ongoing assessment of a student's progress than to have a one-shot test. It would be more important for teachers to have tools that could be used daily or weekly to do their evaluations. Some students would be penalized using models of a one-shot test if they didn't have the skills as linear thinkers. Students would need to acquire skills they could use to solve real life problems. Then they would be on their way to a well-rounded education."

HICKEY: "Not yet, but the unrealistic accountability push could move us more and more in that direction. In our system, we are still focusing on the educational needs of the whole child. There are flaws in the school grading system that need to be addressed."

KELLY: "While the FCAT has garnered a lot of attention and school scores have been the focus, the real substance of student improvement and accountability has created the impetus for improved school experience."

Q: Should the School Board have more involvement in the development of budget priorities or is that stepping over the line into the superintendent's administrative responsibilities?

BRIGGS: "I believe that the members of the School Board are part of the stakeholders of this school district and they should have more involvement in the budget process. Then they might realign financial priorities with the schools rather than central administration."

HICKEY:"Statute provides that the chief executive superintendent has the primary responsibility for preparing the budget and bringing it forth each year. The board has the authority to approve or disapprove the budget. There should be little conflict here if both the superintendent and the board are working collaboratively toward the same goals that serve the best interest of the students."

KELLY: "The superintendent should develop the budget with the parameters of the strategic plan as adopted by the board."

Q: Is morale among district employees satisfactory? What would you do to improve it?

BRIGGS: "I believe morale is at an all-time low, a divided house with the superintendent and the just-recent-assistant superintendent both running for office. If we could eliminate the politics in the system, we would go a long way to boosting morale. If we gave the utmost support to our teachers and made sure they could teach in a classroom without disruption, we would solve a myriad of problems."

HICKEY: "No. I would involve people in planning decisionmaking. I'd work to restore trust. Be honest. Respect confidential personnel. Reward and recognize staff for a job well done. Be visible among my people. I'll communicate with people and keep them informed of decisions and operations. I'll restore integrity to the personnel selection process."

KELLY: "The morale of the employees will improve as we become work efficient and thus can improve wages. As important, or more so, is the continual improvement of test scores, which will reduce stress."

Q: "List the three strongest skills/abilities you possess to do this job. Also, what is your greatest weakness/fear of this job?

BRIGGS: "My diverse educational background and my observation skills. My ability to find and implement simple solutions to complicated problems. My ability to complete the task at hand.

"My only fear is that we as a community are fearful of change."

HICKEY: "Skills/Abilities: Student focus. Team building. Engendering trust through fair, effective management/leadership practices, such as fairness, equal opportunities in employee/personnel selection, valuing peoples' input and using them in the decisionmaking process, rewarding and recognizing our people, being fair and recognizing the value of staff and students, wise, prudent use of taxpayers' dollars.

"Fear: Time, fearing not having enough hours in the day to personalize enough with students, staff and community. This is a big job."

KELLY: "Vision, adaptability, listening skills.

"Communication."

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