By Karen Murphy
TALLAHASSEE – Candidates for Leon County School Superintendent pulled no punches Tuesday during the Network of Entrepreneurs and Business Advocates (NEBA) candidate forum.
Candidates Rocky Hanna, Woody Hildebrandt, Patricia Ann Sunday, and Forrest Van Camp squared off against incumbent superintendent Jackie Pons at the Capital City Country Club with Tallahassee Reports editor Steve Stewart moderating.
Two candidates, Hildebrandt and Hanna, described themselves as whistleblowers against the incumbent superintendent. Both contend the district skirted state law in its awarding of no bid construction contracts. Both hammered the incumbent on the issue, even though no charges have been brought in the two years since the investigation began.
“There is no doubt in my mind that for years non-bidded construction projects were handed out in return for political donations and campaigns, no doubt,” said Hanna, a former Leon School principal who is running with no political affiliation (NPA). He said he had to do what he felt was right which was to hand over documents to the federal government.
He said whether charges are filed or not, he “doesn’t care anymore.” He said that last summer, 11 new construction policies where passed by the school board which resulted in the county “doing what was right by the taxpayers, right by the teachers and most importantly right by our students.”
Hildebrandt, running as a Democrat, is the former principal at Lively Technical School. He took credit as the “man responsible for cleaning up the construction (bidding policy) in Leon County.”
He said, “I discovered illegal activity…including overspending … paying contractors for substandard work, and multi-million dollars being purposely excluded for political reasons. In many, many years nothing has been bid or selected appropriately. Jackie Pons said give this contract to contractors A, B and C.”
Pons, who is running against Hildebrandt in the August Democrat primary, vehemently denied the charges, inferring they were politically motivated. “Every one of those projects were bid and were bid in the Tallahassee Democrat. Two individuals running for office put together a notebook full of wild allegations against me and my family,” he said. “I have had to deal with this for three years. I have never been interviewed by anyone for any wrong doing while I have served as your superintendent. After 40 some stories (in the Tallahassee Democrat) and what do we have today? False allegations and they’re both running for superintendent.”
Hildebrandt, who was arrested last year and faces felony charges for allegedly using Lively Tech’s welding materials to complete projects at his home was asked by Stewart about the charges against him.
Hildebrandt responded, “Jackie Pons is damn afraid. (These charges) will have no impact on my campaign. I am honest as the day is long. I’m gonna run against him and beat his ass.”
Van Camp, running as a Republican, said of the controversy, “It hurts to see what’s happened.”
Van Camp, a 36 year veteran of the school board, who served on the administrative staff for all superintendents since 1978 and six years on the Leon County School Board, referred to himself as an experienced granddaddy.
He said that kind of experience is what is needed in the superintendent’s office, “There has got to be some healing and we need someone with experience and patience.”
Van Camp was asked by Stewart to respond to accusations that he entered the contest to take votes from Hanna in the general election which could help Pons win.
“I got in the race because I am concerned with the lack of leadership,” he said.
He said even though he and Pons are personal friends, politically Van Camp is Pons’ “worse enemy.” Van Camp said he is very conservative and doesn’t agree with Pons’ more liberal ideas.
He continued, “I had to use $8,000 of my own money (to get in this race.) I assure you, I don’t like Jackie Pons that much.”
Patricia Ann Sunday (NPA) Former School Board member and retired state employee was asked about criticism that she is not a serious contender for superintendent because she is way behind in fund raising. “Since when does money mean someone is qualified for superintendent? Each of the other candidates have been connected for 20 to 40 years. Are schools any better? Who has stood up for our children?” she asked.
“No one,” she yelled, “No one.”
Hanna won a straw poll of the 120 NEBA members attending the forum. Pons finished second.