Sunday, February 18, 2018
Education

Investigation of grade change for Hernando School Board member's son comes to no conclusions

BROOKSVILLE — After a nearly six-month investigation, the Hernando County School District has failed to reach a conclusion as to whether district staffers acted improperly in changing the grades of School Board member John Sweeney's son and whether any staff member released confidential student records to the public.

Due to the nonreappointment this summer of a former principal involved in the case and the inability to find who released records to the news media, the investigation has been labeled "inactive," according to Heather Martin, the district's equity, policy, investigation and compliance administrator. Likewise, the district reached no conclusions about Sweeney's involvement because it has no authority to investigate a School Board member. A state ethics investigation of Sweeney is still ongoing.

The report does, however, shine greater light on what happened and the complex circumstances surrounding the controversy.

The incident involving Sweeney's son, who graduated last spring, dates back to his 10th grade English class at Springstead High School.

Sweeney and his wife, Vivian, an assistant principal in the district, contend that their son's teacher lost two semesters of his coursework. The teacher adamantly denied that, according to a district interview with Ken Pritz, who was serving as the assistant superintendent of teaching and learning at the time.

Pritz said he and superintendent Lori Romano were meeting one day when Sweeney came in and started complaining.

"He said the teacher should be fired and right then," Pritz said. "The student failed but he said that's because she lost his paperwork."

Pritz was asked to look into the matter last fall. He said there was no proof the teacher lost anything.

Eventually, he said, district staffers discussed what they could do to help Sweeney's son graduate, and they came up with the idea of doing credit recovery through the online Compass program.

That's when everything started getting messy.

Pritz said Springstead did not offer the program and the best place to go would be Endeavor Academy, the district's alternative school. The school's principal at the time, Tim Urban, said he would be willing to accept Sweeney's son, Pritz said, but did not have the staff to administer the tests. Administrators found a teacher to serve as the teacher-of-record in Madelyn Holmes, a long-term substitute at Hernando High School who worked with the Compass program at that school.

It was decided that Sweeney's son would be allowed to take a series of four tests to replace two semesters of English II.

In an interview with the district, Springstead principal Susan Duval, who has since retired and is now running for School Board, said she was unhappy with the arrangement.

"I had real concerns," Duval told Martin, according to the district's investigation. "I got angry and I said that if it's going to be done, I wanted the test administered at Springstead High School and under the supervision of (Endeavor assessment teacher) Deanne LaBarr. In my opinion, she has no vested interest and I didn't want an administrator from (Springstead) involved in any form or fashion."

On Oct. 10, Duval sent an email to Vivian and John Sweeney and Pritz, letting them know that everything had been set up for the English tests. She said that the tests would need to be taken at Springstead and that she would make arrangements for the testing room and personnel.

"Please let me know by tomorrow — Oct. 11 — the date for next week that you select," she wrote.

Duval then got a text message from John Sweeney on Oct. 14: "There is no need to pull (my son) out of class re compass. Please let him stay in class. I am working with Dr. Romano. Have a great week."

Duval said she later found out that Sweeney's son had taken the test at home on Oct. 11 and 12. There was no proctor.

He earned C's on the exams, though the grades were entered into school records as B's.

In December, Sweeney hand-delivered a grade-change form for the English class to Duval, which bumped his son's first-semester failing grade from 27 percent to 80 percent and his second-semester D grade from 67 percent to 81 percent. The higher grades reflect B's.

The district's investigation shows that Sweeney and Urban went through the questions and eliminated certain ones they did not believe were accurate or valid.

In a written statement to the district, Urban indicated that he was always acting at the direction of either Pritz or the superintendent. He also said he did not provide Sweeney the password to access the Compass assessment at home.

He said he met with Sweeney to address some inconsistencies with test questions that were either missing or had been repeated with different correct answers. After a careful review, he said, he recalculated the grade with 12 fewer questions because of errors.

Others in the district took issue with that.

"It's not common practice for anyone to toss out a question, certainly not a parent," said Duval.

Pritz, in a separate interview with Martin, agreed: "There is never parent involvement with the questions. That is uncommon and inappropriate."

Pritz also said that, in his research, there was always a proctor involved in these types of tests. "The students didn't get to do the tests on their own."

LaBarr, the assessment teacher, agreed.

She said students are normally required to take the tests at school. "That's standard procedure throughout the district."

In January, Springstead officials received another grade-change form. This one changed the class in question from English II to English II Honors, giving the course greater weight and improving the overall grade-point average of Sweeney's son.

The form was hand-delivered to Duval by Sweeney.

However, the tests that were taken were not for an honors-level class, according to a rigor analysis performed by district staffers.

LaBarr, who did the analysis, said a large percentage of the standards for an honors class were not covered by the tests.

Concluding this spring that the grades and course name were inaccurate, Duval authorized Springstead staffers to change the grades back to C's. And they were recorded for a regular English course, not an honors course.

In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times this week, Sweeney said he would never change a student's grade and, moreover, could not change a student's grade as a School Board member.

"I am extremely ethical and anyone who even remotely knows me understands how ridiculous this is," he wrote.

Sweeney, who is running for re-election to the School Board in Tuesday's primary election, believes there is another motive to all of this.

"This entire issue appears political in nature and is infested with … cronyism throughout," he wrote.

He also said that Romano directed the entire grade recovery solution.

"Nothing was done without her knowledge or involvement," he said.

District spokesman Eric Williams said that's not true. He said Romano directed staff to address the concern "just as she would with any student to make sure (Sweeney's son) had an opportunity to succeed in school."

Romano said there are no facts in the investigation that would lead anybody to believe Sweeney's contentions are true.

In the aftermath of the controversy and investigation, the district is reviewing a new standardized credit-recovery program that would be used at all schools, Williams said.

He believes such a program would reduce inconsistencies and improve communication.

Contact Danny Valentine at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. Follow @HernandoTimes.

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