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Hickey wins Citrus superintendent race

The assistant superintendent wins the hotly contested and divisive Citrus County race over his boss, Pete Kelly.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000


INVERNESS -- After a divisive race that split school employees and the community, former assistant superintendent David Hickey narrowly defeated his boss and soundly bested another candidate on Tuesday to become Citrus school superintendent.

Hickey, a Democrat, earned 46 percent of the ballots cast compared to 44 percent of the vote for incumbent Republican Pete Kelly. Ansel Briggs, who has no party affiliation, earned nearly 10 percent of the vote.

The term is four years, and the annual salary is $98,910.

At the home of Hickey's campaign chairwoman Roberta Long, a roar erupted when the results were announced. Hickey hugged his wife, Beverly, and spoke about the strong supporters who had helped him defeat Kelly.

Later, he said he hoped to draw everyone together as he makes the transition into the job.

"We're going to be working cooperatively for the needs of the children," he said. "Whether you supported me or you didn't support me, that's what we're going to do. . . . When you have an internal community of 2,000 employees, if you're not in the business for the children, then you should not be in the business."

Standing outside the elections office with his supporters, Kelly looked stunned by the results.

"I have no idea what happened," Kelly said repeatedly. He said Hickey's negative approach may have appealed to some people. "I guess the negative counts more than the positive.

"I didn't expect this," he said, noting that the only other election he lost was his first run at Inverness City Council. "I lost the very first one I ran and the very last."

Briggs said he didn't regret running.

"I did what I wanted to do and that was get my message out, but it's obvious that the county was not ready for change," he said. "They decided that the old guard is better than the new, and they have sent a mandate that takes this county backwards."

Briggs said he thinks Hickey will be influenced by former superintendent Carl Austin, who is engaged to Long, Hickey's campaign chairwoman.

"If the people don't realize by now that they've elected Carl Austin in absentia, then they've got blinders on," Briggs said.

Hickey, 56, is principal at Crystal River Middle School. He has been strongly critical of Kelly's administration, citing a lack of communication between Kelly and even his close circle of top administrators. He has also taken strong shots at Kelly's financial decision-making, calling the district's spending a "roller coaster" and noting that during most of Kelly's tenure, the school system had to make budget cuts just to make ends meet.

Criticisms also were leveled by Hickey at Kelly's handling of personnel appointments, the amount of money spent on consultants, including the strategic planning consultants, and the poor morale of employees. He cited the formation of two new employee unions under Kelly's tenure as an indicator of just how unhappy the school district staffers have been.

His campaign focused also on his own life-long education career, which took him from teacher to coach to school administrator all the way up to assistant superintendent. He left that job to return to the school principalship earlier this year, citing his interest in being back with students.

The campaign took another twist this weekend when Hickey was admitted to Seven Rivers Community hospital and spent Saturday and Sunday in the intensive care unit before being released. He had been complaining of fatigue, leg cramps and dehydration. But despite the hospital stay, Hickey was out campaigning Tuesday, talking to voters and waving at passersby.

Kelly, 58, has strongly defended his one-term tenure as superintendent, citing accomplishments ranging from lower absentee rates and higher student achievement to the establishment of the Renaissance Center and the $8-million technology upgrade.

He has also touted his strategic plan for the direction it gives the district and the involvement the community had in its development.

Kelly said he will return to the classroom to teach and count the days to his retirement from the school system a year and a half from now.

He said he had no regrets at running for a second term and felt good about what he had accomplished. "We had a lot of good positive things going, and I just hope that they continue to work on them," Kelly said.

Briggs, 61, is a community activist and advocate who has helped citizens who have run into trouble with government bureaucracies. His campaign focused on offering citizens an alternative to the existing school administration represented by Kelly and Hickey.

- Times photographer Steve Hasel contributed to this report.

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