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Style, perspective separate rivals

One's ideas for school change run broad and deep; the other's are more narrowly defined.

By ROBERT KING

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 1, 2000


For the longest time, Shannon Laviano wanted to be an FBI agent.

She studied criminology in college. She trained at a police academy, learning how to drive at high speeds, search dark buildings and blast holes in things with a 9mm handgun.

Eventually, after starting a family, she opted for law school. For a time, she debated whether God was calling her into the Lutheran seminary. But after some soul searching, she decided her talents were in the law.

A new vision came to her this year on a missionary journey to Haiti. There, she saw a nation undermined by political corruption and a population seemingly unaware of how badly it is being victimized. She was struck by two things: the importance of education and the importance of power.

So Laviano returned home and decided she would try to promote education and good government in one fell swoop. She would run for the School Board.

Gail Coleman's road to this election season has fewer twists, but one substantial detour.

She had taught school for 111/2 years before entering the 1992 School Board race. She won. Her reward was a four-year term that some describe as tumultuous. At its end, Coleman said she was frustrated and aggravated by a job that paid her even less than teaching. She decided not to run again.

After 15 years of dealing with children, she took a job at the other end of the life spectrum -- as a bereavement counselor.

Based out of a funeral home, she listens to new widows voice their pain. And she finds ways, such as a recent luncheon she organized for 107 widows and widowers, to reconnect them to the world.

It wasn't until this spring, Coleman says, that she got the itch to return to the School Board. She began working on a doctorate in higher education administration. And Jerry Milby, the person who took over her District 2 seat in 1996, decided not to run again.

"I kind of got bit by the bug again," she said.

Coleman and Laviano were the two top vote-getters in a field of four candidates in the September primary. Since no one received a clear majority, the race continued to November.

On Tuesday, Hernando County voters must choose between Coleman and Laviano -- two candidates more clearly delineated by style and perspective than by their opinions on issues.

Fundamental differences

Coleman puts forth her credentials as the candidate of experience -- the former teacher and School Board member. She claims intimate familiarity with school budgets and bureaucracies. And she can talk education jargon with the best of them.

Laviano is not afraid to admit she has a learning curve. But she says surviving law school proves she is a quick study. Meanwhile, she reminds voters that she would be the only member of the School Board with a child in the school system -- Robert Wiggins sends a daughter to private school. At her core, Laviano says she would be a voice for parents.

These fundamental differences between Coleman and Laviano are reflected in their agendas.

Coleman's ideas for change run broad and deep.

She would make computer literacy a requirement for graduation.

She would get parents more involved in their children's education through incentive programs, such as computer training.

She would push the board to set budget priorities and let the finance director find the money to pay for it, not the other way around.

She would promote something she has been learning about in her doctoral studies -- creating a smooth ride for students from kindergarten to college graduation by prompting even young children to start preparing for a goal.

Laviano has no such grand notions.

Her policy initiatives are much more narrowly defined.

She would demand "proper" nutrition in the school lunch program, an idea triggered by her discovery that her second-grade son had been spending his lunch money on cookies and potato chips.

She would seek to make physical education courses required at all grade levels. An aerobics instructor, Laviano believes regular exercise helps kids think more clearly in the classroom.

And she would have the district reduce the amount of advertising in schools.

Laviano's attention to parental concerns -- her references to having a child in school -- has led to some jostling for high ground on the motherhood front.

While Laviano has had a child in the school system for three years, Coleman reminds people that her three sons -- all now in college -- went from kindergarten through 12th grade in Hernando schools. In Coleman's eyes, that's 39 years' worth of parental experience.

Agree on many issues

On many big issues -- dealing with school crowding, improving teacher salaries and social promotion -- Coleman and Laviano are in agreement. But each lays claim to being best suited to the job: Laviano makes an issue of Coleman's temperament and Coleman points out Laviano's lack of experience.

Laviano says Coleman, based on her first-term performance, would be divisive, bringing turmoil to a board that is now peacefully effective. Others raise the same point.

Carl Harner, the executive director of the teachers union, says Coleman's views tend to "polarize" people. Patty Young, a parent of a Chocachatti Elementary School student who was angered by Coleman's comments about magnet school funding, says Coleman loves to stir the pot. "I don't like her nasty meanness," Young said.

School Board Chairman Jim Malcolm has endorsed Laviano because he considers her "a better fit" for the board. Coleman's tenure, he said, was characterized by intense sniping.

Her critics say Coleman's disruptive power reached its zenith with her in 1995, when she told sheriff's detectives that a health-care company might have bribed board members and district officials to win an insurance contract. A $50,000 sheriff's investigation turned up no proof of bribery, but created controversy.

"It was a tumultuous time in our education system," Laviano said. "We are making progress. We don't need to return to that."

In her literature, Laviano bills herself as a "problem solver, not just a problem finder" and someone who can work in a "spirit of cooperation and teamwork."

Coleman wants people to understand that she was trying to pursue the truth. She remembers her first term as one where the School Board raised academic standards and graduation requirements, while stiffening the zero-tolerance policy on firearms.

And School Board member Sandra Nicholson says the people who call Coleman divisive are those who simply do not agree with her views. Disagreement does not equal divisive, she said.

Whatever the issues, Coleman said she feels that nothing in the past prevents her from having a good working relationship with the School Board and the district staff. She has even complimented the School Board on its current direction.

Laviano's assertions about the temperament issue frequently pop up when she is asked about Coleman's edge in experience. "It's what you do with that experience that counts," she says.

The learning curve

But by her own admission, Laviano still has a mountain to learn about the school system.

Until she became a candidate, Laviano had never been to a School Board meeting. Buried in law books for four years, she began her campaign with no knowledge of current issues facing the district. She had not even been involved in the PTA at her son's school.

In August, the first time she faced questions about ways to raise revenue for new schools, Laviano was unaware that property taxes were already raised to the hilt.

She had spent little time trying to assess what parents and teachers see as the district's needs. And she even questioned the No. 1 academic priority for the year, a reading improvement effort to bring below-grade readers up to par. She felt it was redundant, considering that reading is taught in every grade school classroom.

A self-described quick study, Laviano has since polished her answers.

Now she says that raising property taxes is not a viable option. She says the reading effort's goal of boosting students who are stuck is good and worthy. And she has attended nearly every School Board meeting and workshop in the past two months.

Coleman has not directly confronted voters about Laviano's shortcomings. But she has asserted that it would be difficult for someone with small children, or someone unfamiliar with the school district, to be an effective board member.

Laviano says her family supports her in caring for children and the School Board job will come first before her law career. For one thing, she is still waiting for her law career to bloom. Barry University's law school is new and its accreditation is still being reviewed. Until that process is complete, probably in February, the results of her Florida Bar exam taken this summer will not be revealed.

Questions have also been aimed at whether Laviano has the stuff to stand on her own.

Coleman has questioned her ties to the teachers union, giventhat she has received $1,800 in political action committee money from them. (see related story) Laviano's cousin, Trevor Stanton, is also vice president of the local teachers union.

Her former boss, lawyer Sabato DeVito, is a member and former vice president of the Hernando County Good Government League, a somewhat controversial group.

Her son attends Chocachatti Elementary, the county's only magnet school.

When Chocachatti principal Michael Tellone and his staff convulsed at Gail Coleman's remarks about more equity between magnet and traditional schools, some assumed it was calculated to benefit Laviano.

Laviano says she has made no promises to the teachers union. She attended exactly one meeting of the Good Government League but has never been back. And when it comes to supporting Chocachatti's special programs, Laviano says she would champion innovation from every school.

"I didn't go through four years of law school to be anybody's pawn, that's for sure," Laviano said.

In the end, voters will have to choose whether they believe Coleman is blessed with experience or loaded with baggage. Or, whether they think Laviano offers a fresh approach or is simply too green.

Campaign issues

Growth and taxes

COLEMAN: Says growth is unavoidable and that building new schools is more cost-effective than expanding current ones. And expansion isn't always possible due to limited road access and space. Believes renewing the sales tax is the most realistic source of money for construction. Understands that some teachers like portable classrooms because they can be less noisy. But negatives, such as vulnerability during bad weather, outweigh the benefits of portables.

LAVIANO: Believes that maintaining good school buildings sends an important message to students -- that they are important. To pay for new schools, the district should not go further in debt by selling bonds. Instead, Laviano supports renewing the sales tax. Believes that building new schools is cheaper than expanding current ones. Some campuses have no room to grow.

Magnet schools

COLEMAN: Willing to keep an open mind. Believes some excellent ideas for magnet school themes exist. Says Chocachatti's effort succeeded in producing parent buy-in. She didn't like the lottery system used to select students. Magnet schools should get no more money than any other school. Doesn't want to create resentment among schools.

LAVIANO: Supports giving schools opportunities to come up with their own special programs. Willing to allow for extra spending at some schools to make those programs possible. Says magnet programs are a good way to react to the way students learn and relate to others.

Keeping, recruiting quality teachers

COLEMAN: Says the School Board must set a competitive starting salary to attract teachers and a competitive mid scale salary to keep them. Pay must be comparable to Citrus and Pasco and districts similar to Hernando in size. Must assure that health care is affordable, particularly for teachers with families. More than money, the district must provide teachers an environment where they can succeed -- smaller class sizes, and money to pay for classroom supplies and material.

LAVIANO: Says School Board must raise pay at least to the levels of surrounding counties, which pay at least $4,000 more per year than does Hernando. Supports a merit pay plan that rewards loyalty and professionalism. Must also have a supportive atmosphere for teachers, which includes having classrooms ready for opening day.

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