Sweeney pitches experience, Colon-Toro preaches openness in Hernando School Board race

In 2006, John Sweeney sought to unseat two-term incumbent Robert Wiggins from the Hernando School Board.

At the time, Sweeney said he got into the race because board members and then-superintendent Wendy Tellone seemed isolated from issues facing the schools.

He prevailed in the three-way race for the District 1 seat. Now Sweeney faces a challenge himself from Nilsa Colon-Toro, a receptionist at Springstead High School.

In a courteous campaign waged by both sides, Colon-Toro is trying to convince voters that two decades in the district's trenches make her a viable alternative to Sweeney's education-related experience.

"I've had contact with students and parents for 20 years nonstop," Colon-Toro said. "I think I could bring some good, firsthand information to the School Board."

Sweeney calls himself "a board member who does his homework," able to combine his experience as a businessman and former teacher to help the district.

Four years ago, Sweeney said he would work to ease overcrowding at some schools, increase teacher pay and ease heavy loads for special education teachers. The district has made strides in all three of those areas, he said, adding that technology and curricula have also improved, especially at schools seen as lagging.

"There really was a feeling of haves and have-nots," he said.

Sweeney, who taught middle school and exceptional education at the high school level in Hernando, has navigated plenty of difficult and controversial issues, some of them personal.

He said he pushed for tilt-wall construction for new schools, which resulted in capital savings for the district. He takes credit for helping bring the controversial no-zero grading policy to light. The policy was reversed.

He was among the board members who said from the beginning that Nature Coast Technical High students who had been admitted to the school despite ineligibility due to residency should be allowed to stay. A lawsuit filed by two students eventually swayed other board members.

In 2008, he proposed placing the Quest Academy for the Gifted at Explorer K-8 instead of Challenger. The board agreed, but then Explorer opened with too many students. Sweeney fought to keep the center in place instead of moving it back to Challenger. Uprooting Quest and limiting Challenger's science and math magnet capacity, he said, was a bad idea. The board eventually voted 3-1 for the move.

"The only time I don't sleep well is when I'm really sticking up for students, and I lose the vote," he said.

Sweeney's wife, Vivian, was an assistant principal at Explorer at the time and lobbied the board to keep the Quest Center there. Their son was in eighth grade in the gifted program.

Sweeney said his family's involvement at Explorer gave him insight on the issue. But the couple had already drawn controversy.

Teachers had grumbled at the end of the 2008-09 year when then-superintendent Wayne Alexander transferred two assistant principals out of Explorer but kept Vivian Sweeney at the school. That smacked of favoritism, teachers said.

Sweeney denied that having his wife and son at the school colored his stance on the gifted program, or that there is a conflict in their roles. He abstains from votes that directly affect his wife and said that, if anything, her career has suffered since his election.

"Is it a difficult situation for us? Yes, at times," he said. "Where it becomes a challenge is the perception. But I make every decision based on what's good for the kids."

Sweeney bristles at the notion that he was too loyal to Alexander, a controversial figure during his two years here. Sweeney said it would have been foolish to fire Alexander without someone to take his place. By the end of last August, though, Sweeney was ready to support a separation agreement, and Alexander left the following month.

Sweeney said he was proud to be the deciding vote on new school start times that take effect this year. The new schedule is expected to save the district some $750,000 in busing costs. The district sought input through an online poll and two hastily called public meetings, and Sweeney acknowledged that process could have been better organized.

Last summer, Sweeney seconded a motion to approve a tentative tax rate to include an extra 25 cents per $1,000 of property value. That would have given the district flexibility to include the increase in the final tax rate if necessary, he argued at the time. The motion failed.

This year, he wasn't even willing to go that far, citing the economic downturn. The district was able to balance the budget and the board will ask voters this November for the ability to add the extra levy for 2011-12 and 2012-13.

"If there's a negative impact on students, I'll be the first person to say we need to levy the quarter mill to support education," he said.

Sweeney said he would continue to try to bring teacher salaries up to levels near surrounding districts, would ask the state for more money for the county, and work to make the school rezoning process less painful. He said the district should capitalize on the local airport by starting a high school aviation and engineering program.

"There is so much we could do," he said.

•••

From her perch behind the glass partition of Springstead High's front office, Colon-Toro sees plenty of action each school day.

She says she had many people asking her to run for the board, including school administrators. She spoke to teachers, staff and students, but one of her sons clinched the decision by urging her to go for it.

"I got very good vibes from everyone, and that's what made me decide," she said.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Colon-Toro said she and her husband moved to Hernando County in 1988 to offer their sons a better life. All three boys are a product of Hernando schools.

Fluent in Spanish, Colon-Toro started in the district as an ESOL paraprofessional around 1990. She went from school to school, setting up programs and often working one-on-one with students and parents at the elementary and then the high school level.

She took the receptionist job at Springstead about six years ago, she says, to help foster communication with Hispanic parents and to get a bump in her paycheck.

Colon-Toro said the district failed earlier this year to get enough input from parents when contemplating the changes to school start times. She said the new schedule poses challenges for parents as they try to arrange care for their younger students, and that she probably wouldn't have supported it as a board member.

Colon-Toro said she likely could not vote in favor of fees for sports and extracurricular activities. "With the economy the way it is, everyone is hurting," she said. "For some parents it's going to be feasible, for others it's not."

When asked how the district will deal with expected funding shortfalls next year, she sighed heavily. "Honestly, I really have to do some more studying on that," she said. "But I'm willing to learn."

Colon-Toro said she would have supported the quarter-mill tax levy this budget year. The district needs to do a better job explaining to taxpayers where money is being spent and communicating in general, she said, and should hold quarterly town meetings at each school.

"To me, an educated public is a public that will support the community," she said.

Colon-Toro said she will fight for teachers. She received the endorsement of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, but she said that would not translate to more influence with her.

When asked to distinguish herself from Sweeney, Colon-Toro called the controversy at Explorer "ugly" and said it gives people the feeling that Sweeney "pushes his weight around."

It's time for a change, she said.

"If I tell you I'm going to do something, it's going to get done," she said. "If I don't know how to do it, I will find the means and the ways to get it done."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

About the candidates

John K. Sweeney

Sweeney, 47, was born in Queens and raised on Long Island, N.Y. He moved to Hernando County in 1988. He is a certified teacher and has taught English, psychology and special education in Hernando and Pasco schools and at Hernando Christian Academy. He previously worked as a law office administrator and investigator. He owns a wine bar in Spring Hill and is finishing his first term on the School Board. He earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from State University of New York at Stony Brook and a master's degree in educational leadership from Saint Leo University. He is married with three sons.

Nilsa Colon-Toro

Colon-Toro, 62, was born and raised in New York City. She is a high school graduate and took some college coursework. She owned and operated a cosmetic studio in the Bronx, then moved to Hernando County in 1988 with her husband and three sons. She started with the school district as an ESOL paraprofessional in 1990 and for the last six years has worked as a receptionist at Springstead High School.

Sweeney pitches experience, Colon-Toro preaches openness in Hernando School Board race 08/17/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 17, 2010 9:31pm]

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