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Educators' dollars fuel race for board

By ROBERT KING

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 1, 2000


As campaign war chests go, the $6,120 that School Board candidate Shannon Laviano has put together is relatively meager. But she thinks the people behind the money say a great deal about her candidacy.

Her contributors include one of the superintendent's top assistants, the middle and high school curriculum director, the Hernando County teachers union political action committee and money from similar teachers union PACs in Pasco and Broward counties.

Overall, Laviano has raised three times the money that was given to her opponent, former School Board Chairwoman Gail Coleman, who hasn't actively sought donations.

Laviano said the cash contributions are just the most visible sign that people support what she stands for. And more than that, she thinks it makes a statement about what people inside the school system think of Coleman, a School Board member from 1992 to 1996.

"She touts her education and her professionalism, but the people who worked for her don't even support her," Laviano said.

Coleman had $1,550 on Oct. 13, the most recent deadline for campaign finance reports. Most of it was her own money. Cash is still coming into both campaigns. The candidates must file a final report of their contributions and expenses by Friday.

By far, the teachers unions have been the biggest outside supporters of Laviano's campaign. The Hernando teachers union PAC gave her $500 before the Sept. 5 primary and $500 after the primary -- the maximum allowed by law.

But the teachers union took the extra effort to solicit help for Laviano's campaign from their sister organizations in Pasco, which gave Laviano $300, and Broward County, $500.

Leaders of the Pasco and Broward PACs said such out-of-county money is not unusual. And both said their donations were based solely on the fact that the Hernando teachers union had endorsed Laviano and that they had asked for help.

"We as teachers unions have the same criteria for endorsements: a support for public schools, a support for public school teachers," said Janet Conner, political and legislative affairs manager for the Broward teachers.

Stephen Stora, a technology teacher at Powell Middle School and the Hernando teachers union PAC committee chairman, said he sought contributions on Laviano's behalf at state meetings of the Florida Education Association.

And the cross-border contributions didn't flow just one way. The Hernando teachers union PAC also gave money to candidates in Broward and Orange counties. But, Stora said, the Broward gift wasn't to pay back that union for its gift to Laviano.

Even if there was an arrangement, it would be legal, said Kristi Bronson, legal counsel for the Florida Division of Elections.

Coleman received the Hernando teachers union endorsement and a $500 contribution in 1992. But in 2000, she told union leaders that she would appreciate their endorsement but was not interested in their money.

The reason?

Coleman said, after taking the union's money in 1992, she felt political pressure from union leaders on some decisions she was faced with. For that reason, she says union money is best avoided. And Coleman questions whether Laviano -- who has received more than three times the union money Coleman got in 1992 -- would have the will to stand up to the union.

"That's a big contribution," Coleman said. "What are the expectations that go with that?"

Laviano says she cannot be bought with a campaign contribution. And Stora, the union's PAC chairman, said Laviano will not be beholden.

"Just because we support a candidate and try to get them elected does not mean they are obligated to us," he said. "We don't buy candidates. We are not in the business of doing that."

Laviano received $300 each from the two top officials in the district's secondary education department: Barney Stratton, who declined to discuss the reasons for his gift; and Charles Casciotta, who could not be reached.

Superintendent John Sanders has not made a contribution in the School Board race. But he supports the rights of staffers who wish to do so.

Stratton said he sees no risk in giving to one candidate but not the other. "We have a lot of administrators who probably didn't vote for the incumbents we have now. We work cooperatively with whoever is in the system."

Aside from educators, Laviano's contributor list includes dozens of individuals who gave $10, $20 and $30 -- people she identified as friends from her church, Nativity Lutheran, or from the community.

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