By Patrick McCallister
For Hometown News
Kathy Williams continues her effort to replace her late husband on the Volusia County School as she squares off against Ida Wright in a Jan. 15 general election.
The two were the top vote getters in the Dec. 18 special election, which narrowed the field from five to two. They're trying to fill the District 2 seat, which includes portions of Daytona Beach, Daytona Beach Shores, Ponce Inlet, South Daytona and Port Orange.
Dr. Al Williams, who was the school board chairman, died a few weeks after winning re-election Aug. 14. He defeated Ms. Wright with slightly more than 52 percent of the vote. He first won the seat in 2004.
The Dec. 18 vote eliminated hopefuls Horace Anderson Jr., Deborah Haigh Nader and Teresa A. Valdes. Ms. Wright garnered about 39 percent of the vote and Dr. Kathy Williams 26 percent.
Volusia voters have this year demonstrated that a stronger showing in a primary doesn't predict a win in a runoff. While former County Council member Carl G. Persis won 40 percent of the vote in the Aug. 14 primary compared to Jason Davis' 33 percent, Mr. Davis went on to win the November general election with 55 percent.
In separate interviews, both school-board candidates said it'll be difficult to follow in Dr. Williams' legacy of leadership. Ms. Wright said she was uncomfortable challenging him in the earlier election, but felt the school board needed a member who has one or more children in the schools. She has a 13-year-old son at David C. Hinson Middle School.
"I just feel a parent should be on the school board," she said. "They're all parents, but none have children in the Volusia County school system."
Dr. Williams said she strongly feels the best way to honor her late husband's work and legacy is to follow him onto the school board.
"I'm a lifelong educator," she said. "Education is really my passion. That's one of the things that brought Al and I together."
Whoever wins the election won't have much time to celebrate. In the recent general election, Volusia voters narrowly declined a referendum to add a property-tax surcharge of $1 per $1,000 of assessed property value for four years. The money was intended to go into the school district's operating budget. If it had passed, it would have added about $26 million a year to the schools' budget.
The district's operating budget is about $459 million. It's expected to drop to about $434 million, or less, next fiscal year. Additionally, the schools are continuing a five-year student decline. Saralee Morrissey, the district's director for planning, recently reported to the school board that Volusia public schools will have about 60,500 students next year, about 650 fewer than this year.
With fewer students, there's less state and federal revenue. Because the student reduction is uneven among grade levels and geography, the district can't reduce its fixed costs equal to the losses. In the annual 20-day count, the district had 61,124 children and youths in its schools and programs. That's down more than 500 students from previous school year's 20-day count.
Ms. Wright -- a nine-year instructor at Bethune-Cookman University School of Business -- said she's unwilling to decide where she'd be willing to make inevitable budget cuts until after more research.
"Before I go and say, 'We've got to do this,' let's go through (the budget) line by line," she said. "Everyone has to understand there are cuts coming down the line. I'd ask department heads where they can make cuts now. We'll have to take it line by line and make some tough decisions and see where we can afford the reductions."
Dr. Williams said her work nationally as an education consultant has shown her there are numerous grants available to school districts and Volusia should become more aggressive in seeking them. Also, she said the school system must pressure the state Legislature to review and revise the current District Cost Differential formula used by the Florida Education Finance Program.
The District Cost Differential reallocates some standard state funding to districts with a higher cost of living. Volusia is projected to lose about $100 million by the end of the 2012-2013 fiscal year due to the cumulative affect of changes made to the state's education-finance formula in 2004.
"When you talk about cuts, we're down to the bone," Dr. Williams said. "We might really have to make hard decisions. As much as we love all the activities we do, we have to look at what is the purpose of school. Schools have taken on so many needed activities. But at times like this, when you're stretched, we might have to get down to what do we absolutely need and absolutely have to do."
Both candidates said students need higher education, but that doesn't always mean college. Both said schools should be more flexible to tailor education around students' interests and aims.
Ms. Wright said, if elected, she'll emphasize the need for schools to focus on the area's economic activity and match students' learning to what jobs will exist when they graduate.
Dr. Williams said, if elected, she'll aim to make it increasingly attractive for teachers to serve in the schools with the most difficult student populations.