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Westchase School Board Candidate Forum Highlights Candidates’ Similarities

In contrast to the division commonly seen in America’s political landscape, the Oct. 2 School Board Forum in Westchase proved an example of candidates’ courtesy and respect for each other.

Attended by District 1 candidates Steve Cona and Bill Person, the forum saw the two candidates far more frequently agreeing with each other’s viewpoints than disagreeing.

The event, originally announced as an opportunity to meet the District 1 candidates and District 6 candidates Karen Perez and Henry “Shake” Washington, did not see Perez or Washington appear.
The floor was instead left to Person and Cona.

Both candidates emphasized the need to reprioritize the district’s current spending. Cona observed the district’s current $3 billion annual budget was enough to purchase all three professional sports teams in Tampa Bay.  He cited the district’s current $1 billion in deferred maintenance needs, $1 billion in existing debt to build previous schools and $1 billion that was needed to build more schools. “Yes, the schools need money,” Cona said, but the district, he added, would not successfully solve its problems without examining and reprioritizing its spending.

Person agreed, criticizing the existing Hillsborough School Board members for approving $1.8 million in improvements to their own offices while schools’ air conditioning units went unreplaced and courtesy busing was slashed to save money.

Cona particularly criticized the school board for budgeting the same amount in maintenance, $26 million, that they budgeted 10 years ago. He stated he believed significant savings could be won by outsourcing HVAC maintenance to private companies rather than relying on district employees to do the work. He called current problems with non-functioning air conditioners inexcusable and stated it was occurring because current school board members were not demanding accountability on the issue.

Citing dangerous conditions outside of Northwest schools, Person stated the district administration should have first cut administrative positions and programs, even sports programs if need be, rather than place student safety second by cutting courtesy busing. “Kids are getting hurt,” he said. “They are walking down dangerous intersections.”

Both candidates cited a bloated, overpaid administration as a source for potential cuts. Both also criticized the existing school board for not overseeing administrators rigorously enough. Citing issues with transportation, Cona observed that, if elected, he would set clear performance expectations and, if they were not met, the administrators would lose their jobs.

Person placed blame for financial woes at the previous superintendent’s decision not to cut any personnel at the start of the Great Recession. He placed blame for the current poor performance of some administrators at the feet of the school board members. “We need to get the board straightened out and then we can straighten the administration out,” he said.

If elected, Cona committed to not using the downtown school board offices and not getting coopted by the school administration.  Stating he’d ask tough questions of school district administration, he added, “I will never be part of the administration.”

Both candidates also agreed that the school board had to do a better job lobbying the state legislature in Tallahassee for additional school funding. Emphasizing his success with winning greater funding for Hillsborough Community College, on whose board he currently sits, Cona said it was because legislators could clearly sees HCC’s spending patterns and respected the school’s priorities. 

Both candidates also committed to returning courtesy busing in order to address safety concerns. Person added that the current problems with late buses might have been avoided had the district first focused on the more pressing issues of air conditioning maintenance before changing school start times and bell schedules.

Both candidates also agreed, if elected, to ensure the district posts clearer school district financial reports on the district’s web site for greater transparency. Cona said the financials weren’t currently there because district officials didn’t want people to know how they spent money. Person even suggested that district staff was using budget lines for construction projects to hide funds in order to keep salary demands from the teachers’ union in check.

Both candidates additionally criticized the failure of existing school board members to attend local school events like PTA meetings.

Both candidates also stated they planned only to serve a maximum of six years, which includes the two years remaining in the term of Susan Valdes, who currently holds the seat and one additional four-year term, if reelected.

Both agreed that the district should have done a national search for school superintendent when the last superintendent was fired.

Both candidates also indicated they would personally vote in favor of the half-cent sales tax school referendum on November’s ballot. (Cona previously indicated to WOW that he was neutral on the referendum.)

Both agreed that teachers’ salaries had to be increased, at least to the national average. “There’s no reason any teacher should make less than $50,000 a year,” said Cona.

With both candidates agreeing on most issues, WOW’s reporter asked them to delineate some ways in which they differed to assist voters who were having trouble making a choice.

In response, they emphasized their backgrounds, with Person discussing his past military service in the Air Force and work as a teacher and principal. Person also emphasized he is retired, allowing him to treat the position, if elected as full-time, in contrast to Cona, who he stated would also strive to keep his current private sector work. “Steve has a lot on his plate,” he said.

Cona emphasized his private sector experience as allowing him to bring a business oriented approach to board leadership, which he emphasized has been lacking. He stated he could do his school board work off-hours. He also emphasized his oversight of HCC, which he stated offered more Hillaborough high schoolers the chance to concurrently graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree than any other community college in the state. “I know what oversight means,” he said. If elected, Cona also committed to resigning from the HCC Board. “That will free up a lot of my time,” he said.

Person also stated another area where they differed was on charters and vouchers. Touting them as a significant financial drain on the district, Person stated they represented a threat to a free, quality public education. Cona, however, cautioned that the district was limited in what it could do since the state legislature created a mandate for all districts to permit charters. Person countered, however, that some districts have proven far more charter friendly than others. “Pinellas has 18 charters,” he said. “We have 49.”

Cona and Person closed the forum in agreement once again. An agitated father complained about the proposed tax referendum when the district wasn’t managing AC maintenance and bus schedules adequately. “Why are they asking for more money and supervisors aren’t fired?” he charged.

“That’s why we’re both running,” Cona responded.

The election for the school board, which is non-partisan, will occur during the Nov. 6 general election. Early voting at various locations, including the Maureen Gauzza Public Library, begins Oct. 22.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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