Mark Johnson and incumbent Kay Hatch are running in hopes of winning the school board seat for the next four-year term in Hernando County District 1.
Hatch has lived in Hernando County since January 2015. She is a retired registered nurse who taught pediatric nursing for 25 years in Ohio. Hatch then went on to be ordained and serve local churches for 20 years in Ohio before moving to Hernando County.
She has a history of volunteering in elementary schools where she said she tutored beginning readers.
“I have always been committed to the reading ability of young people,” Hatch said.
One day at a school board meeting, she shared this passion with the group, and she said someone asked her why she didn’t run for the seat. After conversations with her husband, she decided to run.
“I love what I am doing,” she said. “I value the work that our staff are doing with our students, so I would like to serve for another four years.”
Johnson moved to Hernando County 17 years ago from New York where he worked as a private investigator.
In 2010, he said he realized the county was within the top three for worst unemployment rates in the state for five years running and people were losing jobs because they did not have the skill sets to find meaningful employment.
He said the school board neglects students who are not going to college.
“I started to develop programs for vocational training,” he said.
When Johnson was on the school board from 2014-2018, he said he closed a $12 million deficit in the county.
Hatch has made one of her main goals on the school board to lower the achievement gap among students.
“I have been really supportive of the policies and the programs that the staff have brought forth to close the achievement gap,” Hatch said.
The program they are currently implementing is co-teaching.
She said it is one of the most successful programs the elementary school has implemented.
The program is set up so students with learning disabilities sit with their teacher in a classroom with a full class and another teacher in grades one and three.
“The joy is all of the students made learning gains, and the teachers were really working with the entire classroom and the students work with each other,” Hatch said.
She said the idea came from teachers who went to a workshop and came back to pitch the idea, so she decided to take a risk.
“The students are making learning gains, so it does impact their grades and it does impact their scores for all of the students in the classroom,” she said.
A project Johnson is involved with is the Urban Gentlemen’s club. He said the club brought in male role models and taught the elementary students how to be gentlemen. There was also a parallel club known as Leading Ladies for young girls.
“I helped finance it privately because the existing school board that I was on nobody wanted to put the money into these clubs,” Johnson said. “They don’t support clubs.”
Therefore, Johnson said he developed public-private partnerships to help support these clubs and they had a profound impact on the schools they were being implemented in.
Pine Grove Elementary was one of the elementary schools and Johnson said behavioral incidents were reduced by 62% and GPA for the school went up three points.
“The teachers had more time to teach because they were spending less time taking the student down to the principal office,” he said. “By cutting that by a little more than half that was a big achievement.”
He said the following year behavioral incidents went down by 62% again.
Another program Johnson enacted is a nonprofit known as T-Volt, which offered training geared toward unemployed or underemployed high school seniors.
“Our goal was to give trainees enough skills where they could be hired and get their foot in the door,” he said.
The program achieved a 65% placement rate.
He said in recent years he sees more and more programs like it in the public’s eye.
He also took 15 students in the second half of their senior year who were low-performing and helped them get paid internships through a staffing company.
Hatch said they put away 5% of the budget for unexpected events, kind of like a rainy day fund.
“The most important things that we are doing with the budget is providing resources for our students and providing adequate and above adequate pay for our staff members across the board, not just our teachers,” she said.
She said they are continuing to add social workers and mental health providers as more funding comes in.
“We are able to increase not only teacher pay but support staff pay,” she said. “We were able to increase pay for bus drivers and mechanics.”
Hatch said they are very faithful to their stakeholders about being open and sharing any information about the budget.
He said the school board gave non-instructional personnel a 1% raise in the last four years while school teachers were getting a 4% raise.
“They are spending taxpayer money foolishly, and there is a great waste,” Johnson said.
If elected, he said his main budget priority would be getting transportation back working as it should.
“Towards the end of the school year there were 90 buses out of 130 in service because we had no one to repair them,” Johnson said.
He said buses are over an hour late so parents are complaining, and the bus drivers are being paid minimum wage. He said they have an excess of 300,000 miles on them and are falling apart. Even though the current board has ordered new buses he said they did not do so quickly enough.
“I see a lot of disparity,” Johnson said. “I see a lot of things wrong in the district.”
As far as disparity, he said teachers need to be compensated for their experience.
Critical Race Theory
Hatch said teaching Critical Race Theory in schools would be reported to the commission of education in Tallahassee and is not allowed.
“We cannot teach it because it is not a part of our state standards,” she said.
She said the reality is that it is not being taught.
Instead, she said she encourages students, especially high schoolers, to take advanced placement classes.
“We are encouraging students who may never have thought that they could take an AP class to give that a try because many of them will succeed,” she said.
Hatch said even if they don’t get good grades, colleges will see they tried and they will look at that in a good light.
“My understanding, my belief system and my passion is all of our students should be given the opportunity to achieve to the best of their ability,” she said. “Some students are going to need a little help to reach their full potential.”
Johnson said Critical Race Theory is being offered in the school district as professional development, not as curriculum. He said things were being trained in these workshops he felt were “outrageous and wrong.”
He said he wants to get rid of the professional development teaching CRT to teachers and administrators.
“In my opinion, no indoctrination of any kind is good,” Johnson said. “We should be teaching the kids how to think, not what to think.”
He said he believes in teaching about how America is a great country, not focusing on its faults.
“The only way we will get past those [America’s faults] is to explore and teach our history as it happened,” he said. “I don’t think we should be indoctrinating the kids.”
Hatch said they are currently replacing outdated equipment to make them more environmentally conscious and sustainable, such as air handlers.
She said she acknowledges there is more that can be done but the individual schools in the county are working towards being more environmentally conscious. She said she is working with the school board to authorize funding to replenish and replace the air systems.
“Our schools are doing work with sustainable planting,” Hatch said. “They are doing work with raising animals and caring for them and sharing the fruits of their labors with other students, schools and the community,” Hatch said.
Johnson said he would like to see solar panels installed in the schools because the roofs are mostly flat. He said they could convert solar energy and cut down their footprint while also cutting down expenses to save money.
“We need to tighten up the schools a little bit, especially new ones when they are built, to make them less vulnerable to outside bad actors,” he said.
He said the technology is there and expenses are coming down from where they were, so it would be good for all parties.
“We could do a better job at building schools that are more environmentally friendly,” he said.
Mental Health Resources
Hatch said before the pandemic they had two social workers assigned to the whole county and she knew that was not enough, so they relied on referral systems to provide services. During the pandemic, voters said yes to a levy that would enhance social work and mental health services for students.
“There are also programs that are integrated into classrooms so students know that it is a part of life if you want and there is no stigma attached to asking for help,” she said.
Hatch said they have created mental health programs to integrate into classrooms and they have social workers in the schools now.
She said they continue to need more services and are working with the elected officials in Tallahassee to provide more funding for these services.
Johnson said he supports the current program in place, which brings in college students working on their bachelor’s or master’s in social work or higher to the school district to help social workers.
“I think that is a great expansion of resources because then you bring someone in hopefully who might stay with the district when they graduate college,” he said.
He also said cafeteria and bus workers see the children in a different environment than the teachers do, so creating programs that help them be able to identify early signs of mental illness in students would be very beneficial.
“If you could identify which students might have an issue and work them into a program where they can get help then that’s good,” he said.
He said identifying students with problems and getting into contact with their families for no cost is valuable.
“The mental health aspect needs to be addressed and taken care of,” he said.
Hatch said she values the educational process in Hernando County and she understands it. She said she knows its strengths, weaknesses and the work that needs to be done.
“I am willing to tell the truth about the district,” she said.
She said her goal is to continue to do what she is doing and make it possible for each student to succeed to the best of their ability while caring for teachers and providing curriculum and the support students need.
“What sets me apart is I am in the schools, I respect staff and I value our students,” she said. “Not only do the teachers value the work that I am doing but members of the community respect me as well. So, in that sense I can be an advocate for our schools.”
Johnson said what motivated him to run again is that he sees the district slipping from ranking 32 when he was on the board to now spot 39 or 40.
“Do I have all the answers? no. Do I think I can make some difference? Oh yeah, definitely,” Johnson said.
He said his vision is to have a school board that is responsive to the needs of the community.
“My passion is giving the tools to the students so they can be successful in their lives and we haven’t done a great job in this county,” he said.
He said he wants to provide more resources to the 43% of students who are not planning on pursuing higher education to be sure they are not ignored.
“If you are not giving them opportunities to succeed, you’re failing 43% of the people off the jump,” he said.
He said the current school board has reduced the parental input in school board meetings from three minutes to two minutes.