NEW PORT RICHEY — After a primary devoid of pointed attacks, Pasco School Board District 5 candidate Mark Swartsel has taken aim at his runoff opponent Steve Luikart on the heated issue of federal Race to the Top funding.
"My opponent in the School Board race, Steve Luikart, stated publicly that he does not think Pasco County should accept these millions of dollars in funds 'because of the hoops that we will have to jump through,' essentially the same words used by the teachers union president," Swartsel said in a campaign letter to the St. Petersburg Times.
Luikart, who led the primary voting tally, said he had expected the campaign to heat up now that just two candidates remain. But he said that Swartsel got his position all wrong. Luikart insisted he never said the district should turn down the money or shun the state's program, which includes a controversial proposal to more closely align teacher evaluations and pay to student test results.
"I just said we need to be cautious," Luikart said. "In my experience, nothing comes free. There are various stipulations that come with it and we need to look at it very carefully. … I don't know who he's listening to."
Luikart also gladly associated himself with the United School Employees of Pasco, a relationship that Swartsel sought to tar him with.
"The union, to me, is my peers — people who I have worked with over 32 years," said Luikart, a retired assistant principal who won the USEP's political action committee backing — along with campaign contributions — in the Aug. 24 primary.
He quickly noted that Swartsel, a real estate agent and developer, was endorsed by his peer associations. "Well, at least two of the three."
Swartsel said this issue defines the differences between him and Luikart. He said he could not understand any resistance to taking millions of dollars in tight budget times, particularly to accomplish things that the district already is required to do under state law.
He said Luikart "misstated" that if the district takes the money, it would have to hire people, only to possibly fire them when the money runs out. Luikart denied saying anything of the sort, and said he wants to ensure that the final state and federal rules relating to Race to the Top don't force schools to act against students' best interests.
Pasco could receive roughly $6 million if it participates in the Race to the Top. USEP and district officials have scheduled two meetings over the next two weeks to determine exactly how much of the state's Race to the Top plan actually is in progress in Pasco County.
USEP president Lynne Webb has said she's withholding her signature from the plan until she feels comfortable that she would not be giving up employee rights.
"I am just surprised by all the saber rattling that seems to interfere with the process," Swartsel said. "We need the labor union to support the memo. We need to get it in to the state and get the process going."
Swartsel stated in his letter that he was "flabbergasted" by the union's opposition to Race to the Top and also to Amendment 8, which would relax the state's constitutional class size restrictions.
"I believe that teachers who are members of the union need to tell the union hierarchy that Pasco County needs our fair share of these federal funds, and needs our voters to pass the class size amendment that is on the November ballot," he wrote. "And perhaps the teachers who are not union members need to tell them that this is one more reason that they are not members."
Luikart said he supports Amendment 8 as being in the best interest of schools. Webb was not available for comment.
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.