Pasco County School Board race in full swing as issues come into focus

With three of its five seats up for consideration, the Pasco County School Board could see a shift in its orientation after the 2022 elections.

The races feature a loosely aligned group of three candidates who share a similar conservative philosophy. Steve Meisman (District 1), Matt Geiger (District 3) and Charles Touseull (District 5) say they’re not running as a slate, but they have campaigned together and share many talking points on issues such as their opposition to the district’s property tax referendum and to what they call a “woke” curriculum.

Two incumbents — Cynthia Armstrong (District 3) and Megan Harding (District 5) — are defending their records on the board, while Allen Altman retired after four terms in District 1. Two other newcomers, Al Hernandez and James Washington, also are vying for Altman’s spot.

District 1, eastern Pasco

Hernandez, 50, is a Humana executive who also sits on the Pasco Hernando State College board of trustees. He said his views are colored by his time growing up in Cuba. He spoke about the importance of freedoms such as education, and said he is running “as an American for all Americans. ... I’m running for our children.”

Backed by many Pasco Republican establishment leaders, Hernandez has set forth a seven-point platform. The top two items, he said, are increased school safety and focusing the curriculum on fundamentals and skills. He stressed the importance of better communication with local stakeholders as well as with lawmakers, as many education policy decisions are not local.

He said he is not convinced “indoctrination” is widespread, but if examples are found, they should be stopped.

Meisman, 51, owns Aircraft Tooling and Design. He grew up in west Pasco and learned his engineering trade by doing it rather than attending college. He said he views education as the opportunity to try and learn from mistakes.

His disillusionment with the Common Core education standards, which Florida has dropped, motivated him to run for office.

He highlighted his desire to “remove cultural Marxism” from schools, offering videos as an example, and eliminate “woke nonsense.” He also said he wants to make sure masks never return and to pore through the budget to find waste.

The latter is a theme advanced by opponents of the district’s August property tax referendum. They suggest there’s enough money in the coffers. Teachers and staff deserve raises, Meisman said, but those should not depend on voters.

Washington, 49, also grew up in west Pasco and is a Pasco High graduation enhancement teacher. He said he decided to run for the board because it’s not enough to just complain.

Active in Democratic causes such as LGBTQ rights and Black Lives Matter, the 27-year educator rejects the idea that teachers are talking about obscene issues in classrooms or attempting to indoctrinate children. He does not support removing books from schools and backs social justice initiatives.

Parents have a right to advocate for their children, he said, and boards must listen and provide options. But they need to take into account all sides of an issue and consider every child, he added.

Washington said he hopes voters recognize his commitment to public education. “Every decision I’ve made as a school teacher has been to benefit students, not myself,” he said.

District 3, south-central Pasco

Armstrong, 67, a New Port Richey real estate agent, first won election in 2010. She won two more terms even after opponents took issue with some of her more unpopular votes, such as attendance zone revisions.

She acknowledged that some actions made residents unhappy. But initiatives such as repurposing some schools and altering bus routes have been necessary during financially tight times, she said. “We have a plaque on the dais. It says, ‘Do what is best for the students.’ Whenever I have a decision to make that is tough ... that is my guiding light.”

She wants to continue efforts such as expanding choice offerings and providing more rigorous courses. She also has advocated for stronger district funding, including the property tax referendum to boost employee pay.

Armstrong said she supports parental rights but stressed that not all parents agree. “Unfortunately, not everybody is going to be happy with the decisions we make,” she said.

Geiger, 50, is director of student services at Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High in Hudson. He said he began contemplating a board run when he ran into difficulties securing special education services for his children after moving here from Pittsburgh five years ago. He wound up placing them in charter and private schools but saw a need for improvement in the district.

Geiger, who founded a program to combat bullying in Pennsylvania, where he taught for 18 years, contended the district needs to do more about the issue.. Geiger said parents need to be better heard by the district.

He pointed to his efforts in his Gulf Harbors community, such as improving the private beach area, and said he would bring similar drive to growing parent and civic involvement in schools. He said he would “fight vigorously” against “woke culture” and would push for more parents on materials review panels.

“I applaud (Armstrong) for her 12 years of service,” Geiger said. “But times are changing.”

District 5, northwest Pasco

Harding, 32, formerly a district teacher, was a surprise winner four years ago, soundly defeating a candidate with establishment backing. She has supported groups that felt unrepresented, asking pointed questions about district initiatives and expressing skepticism about many proposals.

She pushed to get board meetings streamed online and took steps to halt ideas, such as the recommended closure of Lacoochee Elementary, that did not have strong community support.

“I’m not the person who just goes along with everything,” Harding said.

She backs the pending property tax referendum, saying staff must have raises and the board has made cuts without hurting children. She also has insisted the district follow state law when it comes to items such as book adoption and has pushed back against certain sex education lessons recommended by staff.

Touseull, 66, a retired chiropractor, said he’s running because he felt called to participate in the cultural battles that have come before school boards. He contended that Harding appears to listen to concerns and might initially object to proposals that some find inappropriate, but “then she goes ahead and votes it in. ... I’m not seeing any pushback from her.”

He said he wants to promote patriotism in the schools and stop “forced indoctrination,” including social-emotional learning. He wants the schools to remove books that refer to sex and that teach comprehensive sex education.

He has called for the board to adopt a formal policy on LGBTQ student and staff rights instead of the current administration guidelines. He argued the schools should not recognize Pride Month, saying “these things are best left at home.”

Touseull opposed the tax referendum for employee raises, arguing the district should find money by cutting administrative expenses and closing underused schools.

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