Who will lead the sheriff's office, the elections office and the county schools for the next four years? What changes can we expect?
Nominees spoke for more than two hours at the Highlands Today candidate forum Tuesday evening at the South Florida State College University Center Auditorium.
Safety is one of the biggest challenges, said Democrat Rebecca Fleck, an assistant superintendent and career academy principal at South Florida State College. She's contending for the top job against her boss, three-term incumbent Superintendent of Schools Wally Cox.
"Why are you running for superintendent? Why are you risking your $97,000 job and your career?" Fleck is asked. "There are 12,000 reasons that walk through our doors every day, expecting a quality education, and 1,600 employees. They deserve the leadership that cares about them, who has goals, who can and will make sure students are ready for college. I can and I will lead this district to excellence."
In the past 12 years, Highlands schools have reported 314 weapons incidents, Fleck said. She's asked Cox, a Republican, to develop an action plan, "but we have no crisis plan or training for administrators or management in place."
"Our safety record has been really good," Cox replied. "Of those 314 incidents, only eight or nine of those were firearms." Afterward, he added that only one gun had ammunition, and that some students forgot to leave their mace or pocket knives at home, and that some weapons were pencils.
"I don't take it lightly there have been only eight guns on campuses," Fleck said, and referred to a suburban Cleveland, Ohio, bullying victim who brought a gun to high school in February, opened fire in the cafeteria and killed two others.
"Principals are left to their own devices," Fleck said.
Cox, who has worked 37 years for the schools, comes from the finance side, not from the instructional side, as Fleck does.
"I don't pick out the books teachers and student use," Cox said. "I'll be the first to tell you that. I work to provide the resources they need."
What would Fleck have done differently in the past four years?
When asked to pass a half-cent sales tax for schools, the taxpayers spoke loudly and clearly, she replied. "It was defeated. That was a message: 'We don't want our taxes raised.'"
So the school board borrowed money instead to build a new school and rid the campuses of 213 portable buildings. Those portables weren't so bad, Fleck said. The annual lease on the portables was $1.5 million; now the schools are paying $5 million principal and interest on the new buildings until 2027, which is 75 percent of the capital income.
"Now we have over $62 million in debt," Fleck said, and the lease on some portables remains. "We can't borrow more money if we have to. We haven't bought a bus in three years. We won't have the money for technology advancement. The only way around that is asking the voters again to pass a half-cent sales tax, and I'm against that."
"That was the decision the board and I made in 2005, and I really believe it was the correct decision. I would do the same thing again," Cox said. "Here's why: Voters also passed the class size amendment — an unfunded mandate. We had 213 portables in our parking lots, our playing fields. And over a 50-year period, it's much more expensive to operate portables."
At the same time, Fleck said, the schools have lost Public Education Capital Outlay funds to charter schools, and the school board is using instructional and technology money to balance the budget.
Their decision was marred, Cox said, when the state Legislature lowered the millage schools could collect from 2 to 1.5 mills, and the economy tanked in 2008. In the past five years, the schools have lost about $18 million in revenues. He and the school board have worked with teachers and principals to cut as much as possible, and those cuts aren't severely impacting students and teachers.
Who should be held accountable if the school and the district receive a failing score?
"Ultimately, the superintendent," Cox was frank. And when that happens, he works with the school principals and teachers. The good news is that after schools like Lake Country Elementary are graded "D," more effort is made, and Lake Country is now an "A" school. Avon Park school grades are also rising.
"The principals and teachers made it happen," Cox said, without taking credit.
Fleck blamed a disconnect on a superintendent who is not an instructional leader. "There is a clear need for a change. We need an instructional leader at the helm."
Four years is a long time in the life of a student, Fleck said, and parents can't afford to lose that much time for their children.
"I've tried my very best to implement a servant leadership style," Cox said, with the superintendent at the bottom, the principals next and the students on top.
Does Highlands County have a high or low crime rate?
High, said challenger Candido Garcia, who is not affiliated with a political party. "I rate us about an eight."
Low, said incumbent Sheriff Susan Benton. "I don't know where you got those statistics," but the Uniform Crime Rate showed 2.9 per 100,000 people. "We actually have a very good crime rate. … We have had, in the last six months, a big spike in burglaries."
A Democrat, Benton attributed the rise to unemployment, the poor economy and substance abuse. "You steal stuff to get stuff."
Garcia said the proof was in a stack of papers he held up that the Highlands County violent crime rate is eight, but Miami's is only four. "It's in the website. Compared with the other counties around us, it's very high. If I become sheriff, I have to go to work and bring that crime rate down."
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Summary of UCR Data County for 2010 and 2011, showed 297.8 arrests per 100,000 in 2011 and 2,926 nonviolent arrests for an index rate of 3.2, which was up from 2.9 in 2010.
Asked about her biggest success during her eight years in office, Benton told about her prison drug treatment plan.
"People stop me in McDonald's and say, I was in the (Jail Alternatives to Substance Abuse) program four years ago, and I'm still sober," said Benton, who wore her green Highlands County Sheriff's Office uniform and gun. The impacts are far reaching because after inmates are released, they're not abusing their spouse and children and they're not stealing from neighbors.
Garcia, a former deputy, Secret Service and corrections officer who has been a minister for more than 20 years, wants a chaplain in the jail. "Corrections are to correct a person, to bring them back to the right way. We need people helping those people so they won't come back."
"Something is going on every day of the week," said Benton, who has faith-based jail programs. "We do believe strongly that people can change."
Asked from the audience about the infiltration of Hispanic gangs into the community, Garcia, who was born in the Bronx, said he could more easily deal with them because he has a Puerto Rican ancestry. "Before they come and settle down in this county, I would run them off or put in jail. I would use technology to fight crimes. Sometimes, they have more technology than the police. Once you hit them hard, they won't stay."
Gangs began to show themselves in the middle schools and high schools, said Benton, who was born and raised in Miami and came here in 1979 with her late husband, who was a state trooper. Gang members need education, churches and families so that they don't go to gangs for reinforcement.
One audience member's cousin was beaten by another inmate. What can the sheriff do to reduce crime in the jail?
"Violent criminals are more restricted," she said, but as many as 90 inmates may be in one cell. "There is a potential for violence. We've installed more video over the last years. There's probably not a place in the jail we can't see. Detention deputies are now inside those cells. It took us time, but we are constantly going through advanced training. They're like teachers. They can see when kids are starting to rile each other, and inmates can be asked to be moved if they are having problems with another inmate.
"I worked inside a jail," Garcia said. "I was also certified as a corrections officer. If anything happens like that, I have an open-door policy. We will investigate what happened, if it was negligence."
What would the two supervisor nominees change about the elections office?
"I don't have plans to change anything in the elections office," said Penny Ogg, a Republican who is currently an elections clerk. During Elections Supervisor Joe Campbell's tenure, a local election hasn't been on newspaper front pages, she said — a reference to the 2000 butterfly-ballot snafu, which cast a spotlight on the Palm Beach County office.
Campbell was more fearful of computers than Ogg, so she wants to free up space by converting to electronic formats. That will save the county money as well, she said.
Secory, a Democrat, agreed, saying he's been involved in technology since 1977. The local office budget has averaged $831,000 over the past five years, which Secory wants to look at.
Secory touted his experience as a purchasing manager for the Avon Park prison and for Highlands County. Ogg said she has a passion for elections and has worked in the office and trained poll workers since 2004 and volunteered before then.