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Candidates for Hernando’s District 3 School Board seat talk mental health, technical education

As Hernando County School Board member Beth Narverud makes her run for a spot on the County Commission, three hopefuls are running to fill her District 3 seat.

One is Jimmy Lodato, a Tampa native and 19-year Hernando resident. Retired from a career in marketing and sales, he is a schools advocate who has run unsuccessfully for the county commission three times in three different districts since 2012. He did not respond to the Tampa Bay Timese_SSRq request for an interview for this story.

However, according to his website, Lodato, 76, is endorsed by Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, local police and firefighter unions, the county association of realtors and the Hernando Republican Party. His slogan: "Jimmy listens, Jimmy cares."

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In 2015, Lodato led a successful effort to restore the county’s half-cent sales tax to fund capital improvement projects at local schools and continues to serve on a committee that oversees how those monies are spent. He’s a regular speaker at School Board meetings.

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In recent weeks, questions swirled about whether Lodato lives within the lines of District 3, at the campsite address listed on his voter registration. He said he does, but neighbors at the campsite said they didn’t see his motor home there until late last month.

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In previous interviews with the Times, Lodato said he would fight for better pay for teachers, expand services for students with special needs and continue supporting vocational programs.

He has raised about $5,800 in campaign donations, which include about $1,000 from himself, campaign finance records show. He took $250 each from the teachers union, a firefighters lobbying group, Citizens for Economic Freedom lobbying group and Thomas S. Hogan, Jr., an influential Brooksville attorney.

Hernando deputy fire chief Kevin Carroll donated $50 and Gary Schraut, longtime chairman of the Brooksville Aviation Authority gave $25. Two vocal members of the teachers union also gave small donations.

Diane Rowden, a three-term county commissioner who spent one term on the School Board in 1990, also is gunning for the District 3 seat. Her background in politics and local connections are what put her ahead in the race, she said.

"People call me because they know that I know how to make connections for them," she said in an interview this week. "I’m a make-it-happen kind of person."

Rowden, 68, has funded most of her own campaign, contributing $4,100 of her total $6,150. The rest came from a handful of big donors: $500 from Ackley Dental Group in Spring Hill, $250 from a New Port Richey restaurant called SIP, $1,000 from Connie Sterling — wife of the owner of Sterling Marina in Hernando Beach — and $300 from Mark Guttman, a former county engineer.

Rowden said her primary goal as a School Board member would be to continue expanding mental health services for students, as she has worked to do through her involvement with Hernando’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. Rowden’s husband, Jay Rowden, is the chapter president.

The nonprofit hosts training sessions for teachers, students and parents who need help finding mental health resources, which are scarce in Hernando, she said.

"You can just see that they’re hungry for knowledge of how they can help these students," she said, referring to a recent teacher training. "I notice that all the other candidates are saying that mental health is a big issue, but if you don’t know how to connect people to services and get them the help that’s needed, it’s just words."

Rowden said her work with NAMI and service in local government taught her how to communicate with state and national lawmakers, which could help to find funding as the district struggles to pay for new security requirements.

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She noted that elevated numbers of Hernando County special needs students are being placed under the Baker Act, Florida’s law that allows people with mental illnesses to be held involuntarily for up to 72 hours. The problem is magnified, she said, because the county has no mental health facilities for children, so those placed under the Baker Act sometimes go to facilities hours away.

Rowden is a proponent of expanding technical education in Hernando, as is the third candidate in the District 3 race, Julius "Jules" Blazys.

Blazys, 71, moved to the county about three years ago from Chicago, where he retired from a career in medical lab testing after earning degrees in biology, chemistry and medical technology, and a master’s of business administration.

As a director for Hernando’s Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit that builds affordable housing for those in need, Blazys said he would like to create a partnership between it and the district. Students could learn vocational skills — plumbing, electrical wiring, heating and air conditioning services — while helping a good cause, he said.

"I would want to extend that idea of internships to the variety of local businesses," he said, pointing to law firms, real estate agencies and health care facilities, for example.

The district should implement more "modern-day home economics" classes to teach budgeting, resume-building and other life skills, Blazys said. And much of that could be taught by community member volunteers, he added.

When it comes to talk of finding a new superintendent to follow recently fired Lori Romano, Blazys said he would like to find someone who is transparent, trustworthy and — perhaps most importantly — local.

"There are several good candidates in the county that have a proven record of success," he said. "We can’t eliminate the possibility of looking outside, but I think our best move would be someone with local knowledge."

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Blazys raised only $788 in campaign funds. He donated a couple hundred dollars himself, and the rest came from small donations by local individuals, records show.

Should one candidate in District 3 win more than 50 percent of the vote on Aug. 28, that person will win the seat. If not, the two candidates with the most votes will face off in November’s general election.

School Board races are nonpartisan. Members set policy and approve budgets for the school district. They must live in the community where their seat is based, but are elected countywide. They serve four-year terms and are paid $36,276 per year.

Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.

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