What's the role of public education?
That's the first question my fellow judges and I asked every one of the most recent candidates for Hernando County Teacher of the Year. And, as open-ended as it might seem, it's a great question, because there's a right answer, or at least a best one:
Public education advances the cause of democracy. It grants all kids a chance to learn and succeed. It lets them be judged by the same standards as their peers. It gives them a fair shake.
Yes, some end up with better teachers and at better schools than others. But equal opportunity should be the ideal. And if anybody in the system doesn't believe this, her or she needs to find another job.
Which brings us to Hernando School Board member John Sweeney, who receives $33,191 a year largely to make sure the district pursues its loftiest goals, and seems to have failed about as miserably as possible by creating a tiny category of ultra-privileged student — his own son.
According to last week's story by the Times' Danny Valentine, the boy received an F and then a D in his sophomore-year English class at Springstead High School.
He was allowed to restore his grade with online tests in a way not available to most other students. He didn't take the tests at the school, as requested by Springstead principal Susan Duval, but at home — after he or his parents somehow acquired the information needed to access the secure website.
Even that considerable advantage, which brought the boy's grades in both semesters to a C, apparently wasn't enough to satisfy the Sweeneys.
On two different occasions, John Sweeney brought Duval documents signed by Tim Urban, who is principal at the Endeavor Academy, the district's alternative school.
The first misrepresented the test grades as B's. The second falsely showed that the marks were for an honors class, giving added weight to the boy's grade-point average.
The documents John Sweeney delivered, by the way, are called grade-change forms. And if that rings a bell in connection with the Sweeneys, there's good reason.
In 2009, Vivian Sweeney, John's wife and then-assistant principal at Explorer K-8, allegedly sent a signal that she wanted a break for her son on work he had missed, dropping these forms into the mailboxes of teachers at the school.
She was also accused of pressuring teachers to remove a report of plagiarism from the boy's record.
Though she was cleared of intimidating the four teachers who filed this complaint, at the risk of losing their jobs during very uncertain times, a district investigation found she had "blurred the line" between her role as parent and administrator.
The person who is probably hurt most by all this blurring is the one it's designed to help. By covering for him, the Sweeneys have sent a message to their son that it doesn't matter so much if he works hard or does the right thing.
But it's also highly discouraging to everyone in the district trying to send the opposite message: that these things do matter — that they matter more than privilege — which is what public education is supposed to be all about.
So I guess John Sweeney needs a lesson in democracy. As it happens, he's up for re-election in August.
I can't think of a better time to deliver it.