Pasco School Superintendent Tom Weightman was one of the most vocal supporters of a referendum calling for an appointed rather than elected school chief.
Until he changed his mind.
Weightman said Monday that over the past year and a half his fears that conservative Christians would have undue influence on the appointment process have led him to reverse his opinion. He now supports having voters continue to elect the superintendent.
The turnabout has stunned supporters of the change, who predict that Weightman's change of heart could sway the outcome of the referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot.
"I'm very surprised by this," said Lucy Baxley, president of the Pasco League of Women Voters.
The league has conducted forums on the referendum and has led the call for a change to an appointed superintendent. The league has argued that it takes too much time away from running the schools and costs too much money if the superintendent must run for office every four years. Moreover, a candidate need not have education credentials to seek election.
In the past, Weightman himself used those arguments to support having the next superintendent be appointed by the School Board. He does not plan to run again when his term expires in 1996.
Baxley said Weightman's altered opinion "absolutely" will have an effect on voters. "Anything he says will," she said.
A referendum calling for changing the way the superintendent is picked has been defeated three times by Pasco voters _ in 1970, 1972 and 1986. The last time, the vote was close, with 51.11 percent of voters saying they didn't want an appointed superintendent and 48.89 percent voting in favor of the change.
"It's up for grabs. It's really up for grabs," Baxley said of the likely outcome this time, adding of Weightman's change of opinion, "I'm sorry about it. I'm very sorry about it."
Weightman was one of the first people to publicly initiate talk of a referendum. He broached the subject in an interview with the Times after he was re-elected in November 1992 and also at a School Board meeting in May 1993. He said then that his last race for the superintendent's job had convinced him Pasco needed an appointed school chief.
His opposition in that race was a district administrator. The campaign was rancorous and divisive and Weightman said afterward that that sort of atmosphere needed to be avoided. He had also expressed concern about the lack of qualifications needed to run for the job.
But Monday, he said those worries had been overcome by something more troubling.
Weightman referred to those who hold "a narrow-minded view of what education ought to be and who I think have an agenda of forcing their own brand of morality and Christianity on the majority of people."
Although he didn't identify a specific group or individual, a Pasco chapter of the Citizens for Excellence in Education recently formed. The national group has been linked with a conservative Christian agenda. (See accompanying story.) The local director and assistant director both regularly attend Pasco School Board meetings and have questioned district policies and classroom reforms.
Ironically, Harriet Mathews, assistant director of Pasco Citizens for Excellence in Education, supports keeping an elected superintendent, and she said director Gus Swoboda also favors that method. The group itself has not taken a vote on the topic, she said.
Told of Weightman's general comments about conservative Christians and their influence, Mathews said, "Well, that's fascinating."
"He actually thinks that we would have some clout" in choosing an appointed superintendent, she said. "That's flattering."
An elected superintendent would be chosen by the majority, Weightman said, rather than by the influence of a minority group.
"I think it would be more difficult for groups whose thinking is in the minority, such as in Lake County, to control a school district where you have a stronger superintendent, which would be the elected superintendent," Weightman said.
A conservative Christian majority had won election to the Lake County School Board and made numerous controversial policy changes. Those board members either chose not to seek re-election this year or were defeated in primary elections.
Weightman said he doesn't sense that conservative Christian groups in Pasco have gained strength or are poised to attempt a board takeover, but he thinks their influence could be great if the superintendent were appointed. Typically in such cases, school boards seek comment from community groups and form selection committees composed of interested residents. Also, candidates usually are interviewed in public forums.
The superintendent thinks that conservatives would be active in those processes, and that that could lead to a minority viewpoint having an unjust influence on the board. He said he does not think conservative Christians could field a candidate for superintendent because public forums and press interviews would expose that person's agenda.
He also admitted that John Long's decision to leave the state Legislature and become a candidate for superintendent _ either elected or appointed _ did make a difference.
"I'm sure that his decision has probably influenced my thinking somewhat," Weightman said.
Long is Weightman's top assistant and is considered to be a strong candidate, regardless of how the next superintendent is chosen.
Weightman's changed opinion means he won't be stumping for the referendum.
"I try to just pretty much maintain a neutral position," he said.