Candidates talk about education

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By Amy Ryffel-Kragh

At this month’s State Road 200 Coalition meeting, Marion County School Board candidates were invited to attend and give a five-minute presentation on why they are the best person for the job. Coalition vice president Cindy Congdon, who led the meeting in the absence of president Pat Gabriel, introduced each candidate and began with candidates present from District I.

Current School Board Chairman Judy Zanetti was first on the roll call. She’s a former elementary school- teacher in Marion County and said she wanted to run for the School Board because an educator did not reside on the board at that time.

When she left the school her co-workers were worried she would not remember what it would be like in the classroom. But she made a promise to them not to let that happen.

Since leaving the classroom four years ago Zanetti said, “I have been an active volunteer in the schools and I spent at least one day a week in the classrooms.”

By being involved in the schools, she is able to see how decisions made by the board directly affect students and teachers. “I try to make sure we do a good job with all of those taxpayer dollars,” she said.

Although people may no longer have school-aged children at home, education affects everyone, she said. “Everybody benefits from an educated community,” she said. For example, the people doing X-rays, taking your blood, or the mechanic working on your car probably have been educated at a Marion County school.

The meeting then switched to the District 2 candidates and incumbent school board member Steve Hering. He said there were some problems when he began his tenure, and construction was one of them.

Hering said he promised to cut school construction costs, to have a better discipline policy and a better dress code. “I am proud to say that in my 7 years that I have been in this school system, I have kept all my promises,” he said. The father of six said he also wanted to see a vocational school started.

In 2005, Marion County Technical Institute (MYI) opened. Hering said that forming the school is something he is very proud of. Out of about 170 students graduating from MTI this year, all of them are either going to college or already have a job. “That’s a huge accomplishment,” he said.

He said construction costs are down and contracts have been reworked. To reinforce the idea of keeping construction cost down, Hering used Forest High School as an example. He said the project was projected to cost for $44 million but was built for a little more than $28 million.

The next District 2 candidate was Bernard LeCorn. The pastor introduced his qualifications to the audience, which includes bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Alabama A & M in education. He is the president of the Good Samaritan program and has also taught at Central Florida Community College.

“I have a passion for our children in the classroom,” he said. Although the current School Board is doing a good job, LeCorn said he would bring change to the board. He wants to change the dropout rate and has issues with the FCAT exam.

LeCorn said he wants teachers to be retained in the Marion County school system instead of having them move to other states for better pay. He spoke of a recent news article about a billboard near Tallahassee that is recruiting Florida teachers to move to Texas.

The final District 2 candidate was Jackie Porter, who is the former owner of Porter’s Nurseries. She and her husband started the business in 1989 and owned a nursery off Baseline Road and the outlet on S.R. 200.

If elected, Porter said she would be in the schools regularly to listen. She also said she would be “visible” to Marion County taxpayers and said would spend tax money as if it were her own business.

With the recent budget cuts, Porter said she does not want to see teachers and classroom suffer. “I believe children are the future of Marion County,” she.

In addition she is in favor of a no tolerance policy in the schools and said she will work with law enforcement to do so. “We have to keep our children in a safe and secure environment,” she said.

The floor was then handed over to the last candidate, who was District 3 incumbent Bobby James. The Ocala native recalled his own journey through education.

James, who was appointed by Florida Governor Charlie Crist when Kurt Kelly ran for the State House of Representatives, said his earliest days in the public school system were spent in a one-room schoolhouse he attended in Silver Springs.

After attending Central Florida Community College and Texas University, James returned to his hometown. He became a coach and teacher at Forest High School and was an elementary school principal.

James retired from the Marion County Public School system was as the principal of Dunnellon High School. “For 35 years I had the opportunity to work at the fountain of youth,” he said.

Before being appointed to his current position he had to be interviewed in front of the governor and James was asked why he would want to be on the School Board after all of his years in education. His answer to the committee and the governor was, “Public education is under attack.”

With a $600 million budget and a school district the size of Rhode Island, James said the candidate needs the experience and passion for what they do. “This is what I do,” he said.

Contact Amy Ryffel-Kragh at 854-3986 or e-mail akragh@newsrlsmc.com.