Candidates make final pitch to Lower Keys

By Steve Estes

Early voting begins Saturday and local voters will be faced with one of the longest ballots in recent memory. The ballot is eight pages long, and most of the races for local and state offices are scattered in the first few pages.

An important issue to local voters, the extension of the one-cent infrastructure sales tax, is located in the top left hand corner of the final page of the ballot.

Candidates for local races made their final pitches to undecided voters last week during a candidate sponsored by the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce at Boondocks Grill & Draft House.

Monroe County School Board District 2

Andy Griffiths has been a member of the local school board for 20 years, and is seeking a sixth term.

Griffiths prides himself on being a candidate beholden to no special interests. “I take no campaign donations, and I donate my salary to the Take Stock in Children program.”

Griffiths has been a Keys’ resident for 41 years and has children who have graduated from Key West High School.

“The school board saw some rough times, but we’re headed in the right direction,” he said. “We have managed to hold the line on spending. Our dollars to the classroom are going up and our budget is dropping.”

He says that means the district is making the cuts it needs to make to services other than direct classroom costs and keeping the educational experience intact.

“Right now we are also spending a lot of money on mortgages for our capital projects, but in 2015 that mortgage goes away and we can change the way we do business,” he said.

“We need to raise the levels of services we give to special needs students without just placing in the mainstream and hoping they keep up,” he said.

Yvette Mira-Talbott is the challenger trying to unseat Griffiths in the non-partisan race.

She is a Keys native who says she has always been an advocate for education and recent events in the district prompted her to run for office.

“Education is the most important thing we can pass along to our children, and things aren’t perfect yet,” she said. “The classrooms still need so much yet and we need to find a way to get them that.”

Mira-Talbott says that what the school board needs is a new approach to problem solving. “It is an all-male board and a female might bring a different way of looking at things.”

Mira-Talbott said she would hope that parents would take on more of a role in education, particularly in the area of sex education where a program is getting ready to go in place to teach more than the abstinence-only program the district has now.

Monroe County School Board District 3

John Welsh was the leading candidate following the primary, but failed to garner 50 percent of the vote, resulting in a run off during the general election. A general election would have been needed in any case because local activist Sloan Bashinsky is a write-in candidate.

Welsh worked for the Monroe County school system for 35 years, and claims that gives him “the hands on experience and background to make the best choices.”

Welsh said that ending the current stalemate with United Teachers of Monroe is going to take a concerted effort with both sides bargaining in good faith.

“Those agreements have been bungled in the past, but whatever we come up with this time the school board doesn’t have to agree to it. We need an agreement that both sides can sign on to,” said Welsh.

He also said he would like to see the board find the money to re-implement some vocational programs that have fallen to the budget axe in recent years.

“We used to have such programs, and we need partnerships and apprenticeships that get our students ready to find jobs in the real world. They can do core courses in the morning and vocational training in the afternoon,” he added.

Capt. Ed Davidson was the runner up in the August primary. He says he has attended many school board meetings in recent years and has become “appalled by the way the district is run. But it can be fixed.”

Davidson says he wants to make sure the board looks out for the taxpayer dollars since “80 percent of the taxpayers don’t have kids in school.”

Davison says that just paying off mortgages won’t necessarily make the district’s finacial picture better.

“The state segregates capital and operational funding. We would have to get permission to restructure the use of that money, but we have to get our fiscal house in order. We need to get better performance for our money,” Davidson said.

He also said that the school, in cooperation with local law enforcement agencies, needs to take a tougher stance on bullying. “Neither our students nor our teachers should fear for their safety while in school.”

Write in candidate Sloan Bashinsky says he’s running, not as a serious candidate, but because he will tell the electorate things that they won’t hear otherwise, like his dislike of the FCAT.

“We should not teach to that exam because we don’t teach the kids what they need to know in other areas,” he said.

Bashinsky has been pushing the idea of turning the district into a series of charter schools where school rule is the norm, but had no concrete ideas on how to handle district-wide services when no school is answerable to the board except as a financial conduit.

“It is up to the superintendent to turn things around, and get back from where we are with a bunch of unhappy teachers,” he added.

Mosquito Control District 1

Ollie Kofoid touts himself as the only candidate for the mosquito board with an environmental science degree and the knowledge to handle the science decisions. He also believes that the district should move its headquarters to Marathon to save money and consolidate offices.

“Mosquito control is a necessary evil, and I don’t like the use of pesticides. I prefer larvacides as opposed to adulticides because we have to consider the environment,” he said.

Kofoid said he believes the district is 10 years away from having enough information to implement genetically modified mosquitoes as a defense.

He also said that he believes the district is too top heavy and that it is more important to put new technologies in place and keep people on the ground to fight mosquitoes.

Jill Cranny-Gage is currently in the finance division with the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority and believes that it is time the next generation gets involved.

She said she needs to be able to dissect the district’s budget before she can suggest specific cost cutting measures, but doesn’t believe that moving to Marathon would be the best idea for the district because of the population levels of Key West.

“I think we should do whatever it takes to see that all areas of Monroe County are taken care of the best way possible. People want to be able to sit outside and it our job to see to it that they can do that,” Cranney-Gage said.

Mosquito Control District 3

Incumbent Steve Smith touts himself as one of the commissioners who helped fix what was then a broken agency. “I know what the future needs are, helped save $17 million and will be a watchdog for tax dollars.”

Smith said that the snafu that wound up in the firing of former director Ed Fussell was after the agency had made some drastic turnarounds.

“The district had no money. We responded, under Fussell’s tenure, by upgrading the program and bringing the district into the 21st century and made us a more effective agency,” he said.

Steve Hammond is the challenger to the seat and believes that the district needs to be run more like a business than it is today.

“I am the only candidate with a college degree and don’t want to see the district up for continual ridicule,” said Hammond. “Our budgets have been out of control for the last 10 years and that is due to a lack of leadership from the board.”

Hammond says that the board has raised taxes 35 percent in the last two years. He also says he isn’t sure about the need for genetically modified mosquitoes to fight bugs that carry dengue fever, believing there needs to be more information.

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