Sunday, April 22, 2018

Trust is a focal point in the District 1 Hernando School Board contest

More so than any of the other Hernando School Board election races this year, the District 1 contest between incumbent John Sweeney and his two opponents centers around one issue: trust.

This spring, news broke of Sweeney's possible involvement in changing his son's grades for a course at Springstead High School, generating a formal ethics complaint against Sweeney and a list of questions about his actions.

The district is investigating, but hasn't closed the case, failing to shed greater light on the incident and Sweeney's role as the Aug. 26 primary election approaches. Likewise, the Florida Commission on Ethics has not made a determination.

The race could be decided during the primary if a candidate secures more than 50 percent of the vote.

Sweeney's opponents have differed in their approach.

Mark Johnson has mentioned the incident, repeatedly pitching himself as the "ethical" alternative. Donald Whiting has steered clear, although he says many constituents are unhappy with their current representation.

Sweeney defends himself, claiming he did nothing wrong and blasting anyone who might have released confidential student records. He blamed a host of others in the district, alleging that people with knowledge of the facts in the case aren't being forthright. In a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Times, he said it appears the district has "very little intent to get to the truth" in its investigation.

"Not only would I never change a grade … I couldn't do it," Sweeney said. "It would be impossible for a School Board member to do that."

According to documents obtained by the Times, Sweeney's son was given an opportunity to take a series of four tests at home to replace poor grades from his sophomore English course.

He took the tests at home without a proctor, something that Sweeney acknowledged in the Times interview.

"That's completely normal," he said.

The district does not have a policy or procedure that prohibits taking these exams at home, but documents show that recently retired Springstead principal Susan Duval told Sweeney the test would need to be taken at the school to ensure it was administered appropriately.

Sweeney's son earned C's on the exams, but the grades were entered into school records as B's. They were later changed back.

While Sweeney initially planned on challenging the grades through a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act hearing, he has since dropped the case.

"I canceled the hearing because … you can't put the horse back in the barn," he said, noting the opportunity to apply for college scholarships and programs is over. His son graduated from high school this year.

Sweeney, a former teacher who is running for his third term, believes voters should focus on his record in office.

"I feel like I'm the most qualified," he said. "I wouldn't be running again if I didn't feel like I had achieved some things I set out to do."

Among his accomplishments, Sweeney, 51, includes helping to raise teacher salaries, removing a good portion of the district's portable classrooms, bringing a construction technique to the district that led to millions in savings and, recently, helping to secure an extra $1.9 million in state funding for the district.

When he came into office, the district was near the bottom in the state in teacher compensation; now it's in the middle, and higher than some surrounding counties.

Sweeney has a long list of specific goals if re-elected.

Among them, he wants to pursue new potential revenue sources for the district's aging schools from the state's Small School District Council Consortium, hire part-time assistants to aid teachers and implement a foreign language curriculum at the elementary level.

As a School Board member, Sweeney has been outspoken in his criticism of superintendent Lori Romano's decision to move to a six-period instructional day without a board vote.

"If I would have lost that vote, I would have lost that vote," he said. "Now I feel like I have to speak out even more strongly because we didn't vote."

Sweeney has the lowest fundraising total of the three District 1 candidates. His endorsements include the Hernando County Association of Realtors, former superintendent of schools Bryan Blavatt and County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes.

• • •

Mark Johnson, 64, is a New York native who is running for office in Hernando for the first time. He criticizes the current board, describing members as "dysfunctional."

"I am running due to the lack of leadership on the current School Board, the failing rankings, low morale and the need to nurture and develop the future of Hernando County — its students," he said.

He is critical of the board for allowing some of the district's facilities to fall into disrepair.

"Buildings are crumbling because of a lack of maintenance," he said. "How can you do that?"

Johnson has honed in on an issue that has been the source of much ire for board members over the years: relatively low per-student funding from the state.

He said he would like to partner with other school districts to lobby Tallahassee and get the funding formula changed.

While trying to accomplish that goal, Johnson said he knows the district faces an uncertain economic picture in the near future. He said he won't shy away from making tough decisions.

"I fear some not-so-popular choices will need to be made," he said. "I am capable to complete that task."

Over the years, Johnson has been active in the schools and with young people through various groups, including anti-drug, tobacco and underage drinking organizations. He is the chairman of Communities in Schools of Hernando County, a local dropout prevention organization.

He believes the county's high dropout and low graduation rates could be improved by strengthening vocational and technical offerings and giving students skills that would benefit them in the workforce.

"We're not teaching them what they need to know," he said. "We're not giving them the skill sets that employers need."

Johnson has pulled in the most donations in the race and secured an endorsement from the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association.

• • •

Donald Whiting, 68, is a longtime Hernando resident who has owned a well-known Spring Hill insurance company for 32 years. He has run unsuccessfully for public office once before.

He has a unique perspective: longtime business owner and someone who had children in Hernando's public and private schools.

"I've run a business. … I've been on numerous boards and looked at numerous budgets," he said. "I think I've shown fiscal responsibility in handling these budgets, and I think I can do the same thing for the board."

He also feels he'll bring a spirit of compromise to the School Board.

"I think they are a little fragmented," he said. "I think I can bring the board into a better sense of consensus about our direction."

He said he would do that by educating himself on the issues and arguing his points and accepting when he doesn't have support.

While he doesn't claim to have a robust knowledge of the district, he does offer some specifics on how to improve student safety and well-being, among his highest priorities.

Whiting said he wants to see full skirting around portables and would like to see the Sheriff's Office call boxes moved to schools to boost the presence of law enforcement.

Whiting spent a decade on the county's Aviation Authority board and is an avid pilot. He has also served on a School Advisory Council, taught in the Junior Achievement program and participated in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

"I am the candidate who will promote and support fiscal responsibility as well as help strengthen the vision of our future that Hernando County's parents and educators have shared with me," he said.

Whiting has not raised any money from outside supporters. The $6,000 in his campaign fund is all his own money.

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