“All of us on the board,” Peter Peligian let slip in his closing statement, as if he and the four other candidates to his right and left were already members of the Flagler County School Board. He quickly corrected himself, rephrasing to something along the line of “all of us up here.” He meant to say that they all cared. But they might as well have been board members tonight, some more convincingly than others.
The candidates’ forum, the season’s first by the Flagler Chamber of Commerce, was held in the chambers of the school board; the candidates were seated on the dais, where board members sit; one of them—Trevor Tucker—is an incumbent who sat where he usually sits, and they were made to respond to questions designed to bring out the board member in each of them. The one difference was the audience of 80 to 100: it was much larger than most audiences that sit through school board meetings.
Except for one (an obscure question about rules controlling local development and school construction that Peligian and Raven Sword wouldn’t answer because they didn’t understand it, and John Fischer didn’t answer even as he pretended to), the questions were straight-forward and relatively undemanding: What new policies would you bring about? What are your priorities for the coming year or the next four? How would you grade the district? How will you ensure that the district remains financially sound and students “keep receiving the best educational environment?” Answers revealed as much of what the candidates didn’t know as what they did–which, with some exceptions, wasn’t overwhelming.
The questions were culled from the various memberships of the chamber, the county’s Realtors association and the Flagler Homebuilders’ Association, who sponsored the event. A chamber of commerce subcommittee rated the questions and narrowed them to the half dozen or so that were pitched at the candidates, with WNZF’s David Ayers doing the pitching. No clapping, booing or cheering was allowed, and candidates were limited to two-minute answers.
After an hour or so, here’s the slightly less blurry picture that emerged from each of them:
Peligian and Marc Ray are business types who speak the language of fiscal responsibility and “strategy.” A long-time retail manager who at one point oversaw some 126 Bells stores, Peligian said: “We need to operate within the budget. It’s a matter of mathematics. You can only operate within what you have coming in.” (State law requires that the board stay within budget regardless, and the district is carrying a $7 million reserve this year, in preparation for expected shortfalls). In Peligian’s estimate, the district has a way to go before it’s fiscally disciplined, though no specifics were offered. (Few ever are at these events.)
Ray, the general manager at the Hammock Dunes Club, is big on strategic planning and goal-setting, which he says the board should develop. “We have an opportunity to do some great things,” he said, “but right now we’re doing it by gosh and by golly. There is no strategic plan in place.” What specific goals or strategy Ray has in mind isn’t clear. (Actually, the district has an abundance of strategic planning, goal-setting and district- and school-improvement plans, and its top staff has just returned from a two-day vision- and goal-setting retreat). He declared himself and his wife “very happy with the level of education that our children are receiving.”
Fischer, a Knight of Columbus field agent who ran against Evie Shellenberger and lost in a run-off in 2006, read from prepared remarks whenever he could, and brought up issues contemporary with that race or predating it: overspending in construction at Matanzas High School, staffer uses of cell phones, opposing the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, and using warm, unassailable but not quite revealing or substantial phrases: “We have to be a family again. We have to have family values.”
Tucker, the incumbent, should have been armed with the most current numbers and ammunition to describe the district as it is and as he’s experienced it since he’s been on the board; he was in the same chair two hours before the forum, sitting through a budget hearing that, among other things, summed up the district’s colossal loss of $11 million in local revenue just this year, which the state will make up (making the district far more vulnerable to state budget cuts in the coming year). But Tucker had the briefest answers. Asked if he knew of a “negative” in the district, he couldn’t. Think of one at first, then mentioned poor transitioning between elementary and middle school. His goal in coming years, if money were available, is to install wireless internet and television capabilities in school buses to keep students entertained on rides to and from school. And he suggested cutting back on staffers attending conferences to save money (and costs of substitute teachers.)
Sword—with mentor Jim Guines, the long-time school board member, sitting in the closest row below the dais—used the phrase other board members have been using lately, but none of her fellow candidates dared use: “We’re already operating on bare bones.” Her solutions: more grant-writing on a national scale, more lobbying of state lawmakers for more funds, and more creative partnerships with Palm Coast in using recreational facilities and possibly sharing programs instead of being forced to cut them. (Today’s budget meeting by the Palm Coast City Council, itself a bare-bones affair, suggests that cost-sharing of any sort is not in the works.) But Sword’s grasp of immediate budget realities was the most informed and up to date, as were her treatment of questions about the controversial class-size amendment (an ideal unsupported by evidence, she said) and a modest school tax voters will be asked to support come November (the continuation of an existing tax, Sword said, rather than a new tax).
Sword, Peligian and Fischer are facing each other in the District 5 seat being vacated by Evie Shellenberger, who’s retiring after eight years. Ray and Tucker are facing off in the District 3 seat. Andy Dance, the District 1 incumbent, drew no opposition. He was in the audience, as was board member Colleen Conklin
No forum enabling a handful of questions and brief answers does full justice to a candidate’s profile, even less so a paragraph or two in an article that sums up lives in sentences. But it’s just as true that for many voters (at least the minority who do vote), and absent personal connections, judgments are made based on the briefest impressions, making these forums (which are broadcast locally on WNZF) disproportionately valuable to the interested voter.
The school board candidates’ forum followed one that presented five candidates for judge in the seventh judicial circuit—Matt Foxman and George Pappas in Group 3, Scott DuPont, Don Holmes and Eric Neitzke in Group 10. That forum will be summed up on Wednesday.
Wednesday evening at 6 in the same chambers at the Government Services Building, a second forum will feature Flagler County Commission candidates Nate McLaughlin and Bob Abbot (the incumbent) and the six candidates for the seventh circuit in Group 5—Dennis Craig, Ed Haenftling Jr., Joe Horrox, John Selden, and local Bunnell rivals (and former partners) Sid Nowell and Marc Dwyer.