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Al Hernandez (Florida)

The 2022 Pasco County School Board elections brought major change to the school district leadership in Florida. Al Hernandez, a newcomer to education policy, scored an upset victory for the District 1 seat. His journey to the school board attracted both praise and criticism along the way.

Hernandez’s supporters lauded his business experience and outsider perspective. Critics questioned his lack of professional education background. Nevertheless, Hernandez stepped into office with bold ideas for improving student outcomes in the county. His performance so far has underscored both the potential benefits and limitations of having a non-traditional school board member.

This article will explore Al Hernandez’s background, his campaign for school board, his tenure so far, controversies he has faced, his notable achievements, and what the future may hold. Hernandez’s experience provides insights into the impacts that a passionate yet inexperienced candidate can produce when elected to a major leadership role overseeing education.

Background on Al Hernandez

Before his successful 2022 campaign for Pasco County School Board, Al Hernandez was relatively unknown in local education circles. His professional background was in business, though he demonstrated a passion for community service over the years.

Early Life and Education

Al Hernandez was born in New Jersey in 1967. His family moved to Florida when he was a child. He spent his formative years in Pasco County, where he graduated high school.

Hernandez earned an associate degree in business management from Pasco-Hernando State College in 1989. He did not obtain a bachelor’s degree. However, Hernandez gained business and leadership experience working at several Tampa-area companies.

Even before running for office, friends and colleagues described Hernandez as civic-minded and devoted to supporting youth. He volunteered with several local nonprofits benefitting children. This dedication later inspired his school board campaign.

Professional Background

Al Hernandez built his career in sales and real estate. He started working for Xerox in the 1990s after completing his associate degree. He excelled in the role and eventually became one of Xerox’s top national sales representatives.

In the 2000s, Hernandez transitioned into real estate. He obtained his real estate license and started selling homes in Pasco County. He worked his way up to broker and partner at a regional real estate firm.

Throughout his business career, colleagues praised Hernandez’s communication abilities, work ethic, and willingness to mentor younger coworkers. His success in sales and real estate honed his skills in relationship-building and negotiation.

Hernandez became financially stable working in real estate, allowing him to devote time to community service. He volunteered extensively with local youth sports programs. He also served on several non-profit boards supporting children’s causes in Pasco County.

This business experience provided a backdrop for Hernandez’s eventual run for the school board. He built a wide network across the county and developed knowledge of local issues facing families and youth.

Al Hernandez’s Campaign for Pasco County School Board

Al Hernandez launched his bid for Pasco County School Board District 1 in early 2022. He campaigned on a platform of improving student outcomes through better discipline, vocational training, and community involvement in schools.

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Hernandez’s Motivations for Running

According to interviews, Al Hernandez decided to run for school board after years of working as a volunteer with local youth sports and service organizations.

He frequently interacted with students struggling with behavioral problems or lacking career direction. Over time, he grew concerned over the county’s high school dropout rates, low test scores, and shortage of vocational training opportunities.

Hernandez felt the school board needed members with “common sense” and real-world perspective. Given his business background and community ties, he believed he could help fill this role. He built his campaign around the slogan “Kids First.”

Key Platform Issues

Al Hernandez’s campaign promised to address several key issues if elected:

  • Discipline and Safety: Hernandez wanted to enforce stricter discipline and uniform codes of conduct to reduce behavioral issues. He advocated more funding for school resource officers.
  • Vocational/Technical Training: Expanding vocational and technical education was a top priority. Hernandez felt too many students were pushed solely towards four-year university degrees.
  • Local Control: He emphasized empowering parents, communities, and teachers in decision-making rather than administrators alone.
  • Special Needs: Hernandez promised greater individual support and resources for special needs students.
  • School Choice: He favored open enrollment, magnet programs, and public charter schools to increase options for families.
  • Teacher Pay: Hernandez wanted higher pay to attract and retain good teachers, as well as incentives for performance.

Campaign Funding and Supporters

As a first-time candidate, Al Hernandez faced challenges in fundraising and name recognition. He loaned $55,000 of his own money to his campaign to help cover costs.

Hernandez also received support from local construction companies and real estate firms. The Pasco County Republican Party endorsed his non-partisan campaign, given his conservative platform.

However, Hernandez lacked formal endorsements from teachers’ unions. His calls for stricter discipline and basing pay on performance alienated some education professionals.

Primary and General Election Results

Al Hernandez prevailed in a competitive three-person race for the District 1 school board seat. The election saw high turnout as parents grew more engaged in education issues amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the August 2022 nonpartisan primary, Hernandez received 44.8% of the vote. Fellow political newcomer James Washington placed second with 31.7%, edging out the third candidate.

Hernandez then faced Washington in a head-to-head runoff in November. Hernandez won the general election decisively, earning 64.8% of the vote compared to 35.2% for Washington.

Hernandez’s victory marked the first time in decades that no incumbent served on the Pasco County School Board. Voters sought major changes in school policies and leadership.

Al Hernandez’s Tenure on the Pasco County School Board

Al Hernandez took office in late 2022, participating in his first meetings that December. He immediately brought an assertive presence to the board’s proceedings and priorities.

Board Dynamics with New Members

The Pasco County School Board underwent significant transition in 2022. Along with newcomer Al Hernandez in District 1, Cynthia Armstrong (District 3) and Megan Harding (District 5) joined the board with no prior experience holding elected office.

This created some early tensions, as the new members challenged existing policies and district leadership. Long-time school administrator Kurt Browning retired as superintendent shortly after the election, adding further change.

Hernandez’s bold personality sometimes clashed with the two other new members. They had disagreements over choosing Browning’s replacement and setting policy directives. But the trio’s shared commitment to reform united them on major votes.

Initial Policy Priorities

Al Hernandez came into office ready to shake up district practices. Some of his top focus areas included:

  • New Conduct Code: Hernandez helped pass revised disciplinary standards emphasizing suspensions for disrespectful student behavior. Critics argued it was too harsh.
  • Dress Code: He advocated for a mandatory, consistent dress code across all district schools to improve decorum.
  • Charters: Hernandez supported expanding public charter schools despite opposition from the teachers’ union.
  • Superintendent Search: He influenced the choice of veteran Florida administrator Kevin Shibley as the new superintendent.
  • Magnet Programs: Hernandez spearheaded developing new magnets focused on vocational trades.
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Budget and Finance Decisions

In his first year on the board, Al Hernandez reviewed several major budget, finance, and construction initiatives:

  • Tax Referendum: He voted against putting a property tax referendum on the 2023 ballot, arguing it was unnecessary with rising property tax revenue.
  • New School Construction: Hernandez supported a $100 million bond issuance to fund new school buildings to address overcrowding.
  • Charter School Funds: He advocated equal funding for public charter schools despite initial staff proposals to provide less.
  • Teacher Pay: Hernandez joined unanimous votes to increase teacher salaries by 5% in 2023, with bonuses for highly rated instructors.
  • Reserves: He suggested tapping district reserves to bolster vocational programs, but staff argued reserves were limited.

Curriculum and Testing Changes

Al Hernandez pursued several changes to academics and student evaluations:

  • Vocational Programs: He made expanding vocational and technical coursework a top priority. Hernandez helped develop partnerships with local businesses to provide apprenticeships and job certifications.
  • State Assessments: Hernandez spoke out against excessive student testing. He suggested the district consider replacing the FSA with other progress monitoring tools.
  • DEI Curriculum: He expressed skepticism regarding new diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) curriculum standards. Hernandez argued they were divisive and leaned too far politically.
  • Textbooks: Hernandez proposed curriculum reviews to remove certain textbooks he believed contained inappropriate content. District staff pushed back on his approach.

Controversies and Criticisms

Al Hernandez’s confrontational style generated controversies both on and off the school board dais during his first year in office. He remained a polarizing figure locally.

Conflict of Interest Allegations

Shortly after taking office, Hernandez faced criticism for lacking transparency around potential conflicts of interest:

  • He voted on charter school matters despite his real estate ties to charter developers. Critics argued Hernandez should abstain from such votes.
  • Construction companies tied to Hernandez’s campaign supporters received district contracts. Watchdog groups said it merited deeper ethics reviews.
  • Hernandez did not fully disclose his business affiliations and campaign donor sources as required. Complaints alleged ethics violations.

Hernandez denied any impropriety, arguing he was being targeted for political reasons. But he agreed to improve his public disclosures going forward.

Lack of Education Experience

Perhaps the biggest liability for Al Hernandez was his lack of professional education background prior to running.

Hernandez never worked in a school or held major leadership roles in education organizations. At times, his unfamiliarity with academic issues limited his effectiveness.

For example, Hernandez struggled to understand the complexities of state testing protocols. His proposals to change textbooks raised concerns over violating curriculum standards.

Critics argued while Hernandez brought passion, he lacked the critical expertise to develop thoughtful education policy. They worried his populist approach could undermine academic rigor.

Notable Achievements

While controversial at times, Al Hernandez made progress on several key goals during his first year on the school board:

Improved Graduation Rates

Pasco County’s four-year high school graduation rate rose from 91% to 93% in 2022 under Hernandez’s leadership. While modest, it marked a continued upward trend after stagnating the prior two years.

Hernandez championed greater accountability and discipline for at-risk students as a key driver of the improved graduation rate. Though correlation does not imply causation, the gains aligned with his policy goals.

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Expanded Vocational Training

True to his platform, Hernandez made expanding vocational education a centerpiece of his school board agenda. Through his advocacy, Pasco County opened two new vocational magnet high school programs in 2023 focused on construction and health sciences.

The district also launched new apprenticeship partnerships with over 40 local businesses to provide students workplace experience and job certifications.

While in its early stages, the progress demonstrated Hernandez’s effectiveness at mobilizing vocational initiatives.

What the Future Holds for Al Hernandez

As he nears the end of his first year in office, Al Hernandez can point to real impacts on Pasco County schools. But open questions remain regarding his long-term goals and potential for re-election.

Long-Term Goals for the District

In interviews, Al Hernandez cited numerous long-term goals he wants to achieve over the next three years in office:

  • Continue expanding vocational and technical offerings, including new magnet programs focused on IT, business, and the arts
  • Grow industry partnerships and apprenticeships to 100+ local businesses
  • See through completion of the district’s $100 million school construction bond and begin planning future projects
  • Work to improve test scores, aiming for the county to rank in the state’s top 20 districts
  • Attract and retain talented teachers by advocating for higher pay and reduced class sizes
  • Increase capacity for disadvantaged and special needs students through targeted services and supports
  • Develop a 10-year strategic plan in partnership with parents, teachers, and community leaders

Potential for Re-Election

Al Hernandez will be up for re-election to the Pasco County School Board in 2026 if he chooses to run again. Given his controversial tenure so far, his prospects are uncertain.

On one hand, Hernandez enjoys strong popularity among the anti-establishment and socially conservative voters who backed his initial election. If he emerges as board chair and makes progress on his agenda, re-election is likely.

However, opposition from teachers’ unions and parents skeptical of his policies could mount by 2026. He will need to build a broader coalition to win over swing voters in a competitive race.

If Hernandez falters in advancing his priorities like vocational programs, his re-election hopes would dim. But in the near-term, his base appears solidly behind him.

Conclusion

Al Hernandez entered the Pasco County School Board as an untested outsider promising transformative change. His brash style quickly shook up the status quo. Within a year, he made progress on priorities like vocational education and discipline. But self-inflicted controversies also marred his early tenure.

Looking ahead, Hernandez’s fate likely hinges on delivering outcomes voters can connect to his leadership. If he can point to real student achievement gains that match his rhetoric, he may have a long political career ahead. But failure to do so will enable critics to portray him as an ineffective bomb-thrower.

Al Hernandez’s journey reflects both the risks and potential rewards of electing non-traditional candidates who bring fresh perspectives to education governance. Only time will tell whether his approach ultimately helps or hinders Pasco County schools. But it undoubtedly continues to make district politics far more interesting.

FAQs

  1. How long is Al Hernandez’s term on the Pasco County School Board?
  • Hernandez was elected to a four-year term from November 2022 through November 2026. He would need to run for re-election in 2026 to serve another term.
  1. What was Al Hernandez’s professional background before running for school board?
  • Hernandez worked in sales and real estate. He had over 25 years of business experience but no prior roles in education leadership.
  1. Why was Hernandez’s election significant?
  • Hernandez’s win meant no incumbents would serve on the Pasco County School Board for the first time in decades. Voters sought large-scale changes.
  1. What are some of Hernandez’s key policy positions?
  • Hernandez prioritized greater school discipline, vocational programs, local control over schools, and expanding school choice options. He opposed tax increases.
  1. How would you characterize Hernandez’s leadership style?
  • Hernandez brought an assertive, confrontational approach that challenged the status quo. Critics argued he lacked nuance and education expertise at times. But supporters praised his fresh perspective and action-oriented results.

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