Local News

Highlands County school board forum

— The bottom line for seven of the eight school board candidates: they endorsed the half-cent sales tax on the November ballot, but they weren’t warm for the Common Core standards, known in Florida as the Florida Standards.

Incumbent Ronnie Jackson could not attend.

William “Tres” Stephenson broke the ice on the tax question, which voters will decide on Nov. 6: whether to approve a new tax that would pay for technology and computers, school buses, classroom construction, maintenance, and safety and security.

“We need better financing,” said Stephenson, who advocated for a police officer “on campus at all times... But I’m concerned it’s not going to be pushed through.”

The school district “hasn’t bought a school bus in five years. It’s the fairest tax, and I hope it will be supported in November,” said Stephenson, who graduated school here. He has one daughter at Florida State University and another who is a high school senior. He is the president and general manager of Sebring International Raceway, which is owned by NASCAR.

Later in the two-hour forum, moderator Tina Gottus asked the tax question of all candidates: “If the half-cent sales tax proposal doesn’t pass, how will you meet the shortfall in capital needs?”

“I hope that doesn’t happen,” said Jill Compton, who was appointed by the governor to the board earlier this year after Andy Tuck resigned to take a state school board seat. But if the tax doesn’t pass, she said, school board members will do what they must with the current property tax.

“Do we need the half cent sales tax?” Clinton Culverhouse asked. “Yes we do. We need more than a half-cent sales tax.” An Avon Park firefighter, he has a daughter who will start middle school and a son who will start second grade this fall.

“The school board has the financial responsibility to make sure our schools are kept up,” Pep Hutchinson said. When the last tax proposed was defeated by the voters, “the school board borrowed $52 million. If it doesn’t pass, then we focus on construction. Some of our schools are embarrassing... We don’t need buses.” A self-described conservative, he has taught as a substitute, taught in a charter school, volunteered 1,000 hours to the school system, followed school issues through three legislative sessions, and donated more than 14,000 notebooks and pencils to students.

His mother teaches at Avon Elementary, said Trevor Murphy, and when it rains, “her classroom gets flooded. That’s something that can’t continue happening. This tax is a great way for us to spread the burden... among property owners and tourists. We need to view this as an opportunity to further invest in our children.” Murphy is a Highlands County native who has no children of his own, but four generations of his family live here. He started Murphy Ag Solutions, an agriculture supply company, in 2009.

“We must have dry classrooms, fire alarms, etc.,” said Charlene Edwards. “We have to make sure all the health and safety items are corrected, then we put the rest on a prioritized list.” She has held positions on the boards of Healthy Start Coalition of Hardee, Highlands and Polk Counties, the Early Learning Coalition, the SFSC Advisory Committee for Early Childhood, and the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts.

“The half-cent sales tax is a no-brainer if the trust of the community is there,” said Aljoe Hinson, an Avon Park native who has served on the city council and spent a career coaching sports and teaching math.

Asked by Gottus if they support Florida’s version of the Common Core standards adopted in 44 states, no candidate answered directly.

“The teachers need to comfortable,” said Hinson. “I don’t think they are comfortable, and that’s an issue. If you leave it up to the teachers, they can do what they need to do. I was taught by teachers who didn’t have all these rules, and I think I turned out pretty good. Tell them what to teach, not how to teach.”

“A lot of people have issues with Common Core,” Compton said, “but this is the current yardstick we are being measured by. We are in control of the curriculum at the local level.” She is a Lake Placid graduate, mother of twins, and a real estate agent.

“The biggest issue is accountability,” Culverhouse said. “We must hold every individual to a higher standard.”

“There’s a bigger problem,” Hutchinson said. Over a lifetime, a high school graduate will earn $500,000 more than a dropout, who will absorb $140,000 from the system. “The graduation rate is very important. How do we get to improve that?”

“Florida’s Common Core standards are promoting critical thinking,” Murphy said. Information is readily accessible to everyone via the Internet. “What are you going to do with it? That’s where critical thinking comes in.”

How will the board implement Common Core successfully, Edwards asked? “We need to address the achievement gap. It begins in the home, with the parent. We need to engage parents early and often, and make sure they are partners with our school system.”

“The federal government shouldn’t have been involved at all,” Stephenson said. “As with most of the standards, it is not a perfect set of standards, but I will follow them if elected.”

“I teach the curriculum,” said Compton. “I do not teach Common Core.”

Have they disagreed with previous school board decisions?

“I wish (Superintendent Wally) Cox had involved the business community in the tax referendum,” Stephenson said. “Bullying is a serious problem. It should be handled more consistently from the schools.”

“When a school board member is sitting up there and thinking about budget,” Edwards said, “I don’t think they’re thinking, ‘How does this affect the student?’”

“When someone brings an issue before the school board, the school board should have the courage to listen, and not make their minds up before the meeting,” Hinson said. “And this moving of the principals, and moving of the teachers. My nephew has had four different principals.”



School board candidates

District 1

Charlene Edwards

Aljoe Hinson

Ronnie Jackson

District 5

Jill Compton

Clinton Culverhouse

Pep Hutchinson

Trevor Murphy

Tres Stephenson