The Hernando County School Board needs an overhaul. Individual members are ambivalent toward children's safety, display little conviction for trying to match revenue with a capital plan topping $200 million, and issue public statements contradicting their own votes. On the Aug. 26 ballot, there is one open seat, and two incumbents seeking re-election in the nonpartisan, countywide races open to all voters. If no candidate collects 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will be on the November ballot. Voters should elect candidates committed to public education, bettering student achievement and working to ensure schools aren't short-changed by fiscal policies tilted toward special interests.
District 1, Mark Johnson
Mark Johnson, 64, a private investigator, is the best candidate in this race. He has been heavily involved as a volunteer in antidrug coalition and dropout prevention programs and wants to bolster the district's high school graduation rate and its vocational offerings to build a better-educated workforce. He advocated for student safety in speaking out publicly at board meetings for restoring courtesy bus rides for children living more than a mile from their elementary school, and now wants to extend the program to include more students. It's a can-do attitude the other candidates lack.
Two-term incumbent John K. Sweeney, 51, can legitimately point to his work obtaining an extra $2 million from the state for the Hernando County School District, via a program for smaller districts, as a significant accomplishment.
But, much of the rest of his recent record is disappointing. He voted against providing bus rides for elementary school children living more than a mile from campus and failed to lead on the impact fee issue (though he voted with the majority to ask for higher fees from the county). In an interview last week, Sweeney said he has never been a fan of impact fees — one-time charges on new homes to offset public infrastructure demands from growth — and said waiving the fees allows the county to better compete economically with other counties. That's nonsense and nothing more than naked political pandering.
Also, Sweeney's role in a grade-changing scandal still has not been resolved publicly. He said he did nothing wrong in acting as a parent and wants a pending employee investigation to be expedited. He displays no sense of personal responsibility in this issue and instead blames: a teacher for losing his son's assignments two years earlier; an unidentified employee for printing a 750-page exam; an error-filled computer test program and someone else for changing his son's grades. So much for accountability.
The entire episode should give voters pause about re-electing Sweeney to a third term.
Donald Whiting, 68, is making his second run for public office after an unsuccessful 2004 county commission race. He is invested in the community, having owned and operated Whiting Insurance for 32 years and has a record of civic volunteering.
But Whiting's ideas are simplistic: More safety by adding skirting around portable classrooms and putting deputy call boxes on school campuses to provide a visual crime deterrent because officers could show up at any time to phone in a report from the field.
In the Hernando County School Board District 1 race, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Mark Johnson.
District 3, Jay Rowden
Jay Rowden, 70, who owned a machinery company before retiring 10 years ago, is the accidental candidate. He said he entered the race to replace the retiring Dianne Bonfield because he believed former superintendent Bryan Blavatt intended to run also. It would have been unfair to the current superintendent, Lori Romano, to have her predecessor as one of her five bosses, Rowden said. A Blavatt candidacy never materialized, but Rowden remained in the race against businesswoman Beth Narverud, the former head of the Hernando County Education Foundation.
Both Rowden and Narverud are strong candidates who have been private-sector successes and have broad community ties. They differ on fiscal priorities. Narverud believes the district can run its budget better and says it needs to eliminate waste in the district office.
She also does not favor school impact fees, saying they an unreliable source of revenue. It's the same tired rhetoric pushed by special interests. If impact fees are unreliable sources of revenue, how reliable is it to set them at zero?
Rowden, the husband of County Commissioner Diane Rowden, believes the current sales tax proposal should have been extended beyond 10 years to boost the district's borrowing power and to better attack the capital project list. The district faces a more than $60 million shortfall even if voters approve a half-cent sales tax extension in November because of projected revenue not forthcoming from impact fees.
In the Hernando County School Board District 3 race, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Jay Rowden.
District 5, Susan Duval
The names are familiar in the District 5 face: incumbent Cynthia Moore; Robert Neuhausen, who is making his third run for a school board seat; Anna Liisa Covell, a former county commission candidate and Planning and Zoning Commission member; and Susan Duval, who recently retired as principal at Springstead High School.
Duval, 67, is the top choice of the field. Having administered a high school during years of constrained budgets, she is familiar with school spending and teaching requirements. Likewise, she offers a greater understanding of student achievement and the obstacles that must be overcome to increase academic performance.
Moore, 72, a retired teacher, former head of the teachers' union and a school volunteer, has been a strong advocate for employees and children alike. And, most notably, she strongly supported education impact fees and even volunteered to finance a required consultant's study to justify the fees to the county commission. Unfortunately, her multiple flip-flops on courtesy bus rides and school start times demonstrates a lack of focus that undermines her effectiveness.
Neuhausen, 46, an electrical engineer, offers a similar cost-savings platform from two years ago: require bus drivers to drive below the posted speed limit and allow schools to go dark one night a week with no extracurricular activities. This year he promises to fight the Common Core State Standards and the tweaked state version, known as Florida Standards, which he maintains lumps students into one category and expects them to perform alike. It's a fight he'd have to take to the Legislature in Tallahassee, not to the School Board in Brooksville.
Covell, 63, a business owner who recently completed her master's degree in digital journalism, threatens the district's long-term finances by advocating for the defeat of the sales tax referendum. Her angst at the County Commission is understandable, but crippling the district's financial ability to upgrade computer capabilities, maintain buildings and pay off debt is an irresponsible tit-for-tat.
In the Hernando County School Board District 5 race, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Susan Duval.