NEW PORT RICHEY — While the candidates in other races for Pasco School Board soft-pedal their differences, District 5 hopefuls Steve Luikart and Mark Swartsel mince no words.
"The differences between the two of us are pretty simple," said Luikart, a retired teacher and assistant principal. "I've got an education background. He's got a real estate background. … There's no substitute for experience."
Swartsel uses the same argument, with a twist.
"Mine is the only race where there is a clear-cut choice," the developer-real estate agent said. "He is a school insider who worked for the system for 32 years. I am the outsider businessman who is saying we need more business leadership on the board. … We're in the business of educating our children and it's a $1.1 billion business. I don't need teaching experience to make sure that we have the best education environment that we can possibly have for our kids."
Swartsel, who contributed to Luikart's campaign before deciding to run himself, pointed to Luikart's endorsement by the United School Employees of Pasco as illustrative of the divide between the two former high school classmates and football teammates.
"I don't want this to sound in a negative way, but the reality of it is, I think Steve will back the teachers union on issues that the union takes sides on that may be opposite to mainstream thinking because he is getting a lot of money from the unions from all over the state," he said.
Luikart scoffed at the attempt to paint him as a union lackey.
"I spent 24 years as an assistant principal. You can't join the union," Luikart said. But over the years, "they saw how I worked. I was fair. I was honest. I was up-front. I treated them as individuals."
He stressed that his sole motivation in seeking election is to focus all decisions on student needs, which is what education is all about.
"I view myself as an educator," he said. "I don't have another business. I'm retired. I don't have to worry about someone not coming into my business because I said something at a board meeting."
And on it goes.
Their differences extend beyond experience to style and substance.
Luikart, 59, speaks in a booming "assembly voice," no amplification needed. He doesn't shy away from saying what he thinks, and he aims to get straight to the point. Swartsel, 58, is more soft-spoken, with a tendency to tell stories as a way to approach issues. He hints at his views, but often stops short on specifics to avoid roiling the water.
The distinctions came through when the two spoke of budget cutting.
Luikart pointed to specific departments, such as staff development, and talked about the need to reduce costs without touching classrooms, if possible.
Swartsel agreed that cuts shouldn't harm students and teachers. When it came to the details about reducing spending elsewhere, though, he demurred: "I don't want to talk about specifics about where I think there is a little bit of fat … in the administrative areas."
Throughout the campaign, which began in July, the two men have agreed on a handful of issues.
Both back changes to the Florida class-size amendment and support a move to some type of performance pay for teachers. Neither is keen on increasing property taxes or privatizing district services.
Just as often, they stand apart.
On Race to the Top, for instance, Luikart cautioned against jumping wholeheartedly into the federal reform effort without knowing more about the strings attached and long-term costs. His skepticism extends to the acceptance of stimulus funds, too, as that influx of cash will come only one time while lulling people into thinking their problems are solved.
"They're putting Band-Aids on a sinking ship," Luikart said.
Swartsel argued that the district should wholeheartedly accept the money, as many of the Race to the Top mandates already are required by the state. He said the public would be "outraged" if the district turned down millions of dollars because the union refused to agree to terms of its use.
They don't share the same priorities, either.
Swartsel said his top goals include finding ways to increase teacher planning time, improving purchasing effectiveness and upgrading the district's classroom technology offerings.
Luikart called for more transparency in district operations, increased expectations of parents and students, and more consistent application of district policies and procedures in all schools and departments.
Both candidates said they have plenty of time to dedicate to serving on the board. The winner will replace Frank Parker, who is retiring after one term.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.