Editor's note: School Superintendent Tom Weightman sat down for an hourlong interview Thursday afternoon with Pasco Times education reporter Nancy Weil. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation.
What do you plan to do after you retire Aug. 31?
I don't really have anything definite in mind. . . . I think for a while I will just back away. One of the things I know I don't want to do anytime soon is get into a stressful situation. There's a lot of stress connected with this particular job, the responsibilities of the job and the sheer size of it. I just think if I do something in the future, I want it to be something that has less stress.
Do you think you would ever run for office again _ state House or Senate?
I don't have any desire to run for any political office.
You said in 1984 that you were going to retire at the end of that four-year term. What made you change your mind?
It's true I said that. I just had a change of heart and decided that was really too early. Somewhere around that time Dr. (John) Long wanted to run for the state Legislature. I thought we were making good progress here, so I thought that I would stay.
Are you glad that you did?
Yes. I have no regrets about the time I have been here. It's almost been like a life's work. I spent 35 years _ I've been here since 1961 in this district.
What do you think schools need to improve? There's always talk about the need for better parental involvement, more money, stronger discipline.
Well, let me qualify that by saying I think this is a good school system, and I think the majority of school systems in the United States are good school systems, and people are just as dedicated today as they ever were.
While there are certain school districts in the United States that leave a lot to be desired and many of them are big city or inner-city systems, critics have tended to paint all of us with the same brush, and I think that's been very unfair. I think there are people . . . promoting their own interests who feel that the best way to accomplish their goals is to tear down public education, and that is a factor.
But there are things that can be done that will lead to better schools.
Well, in Florida, most of the school districts are pretty large organizations. I consider this a large organization _ the fact that you have a very large operating budget, now approaching $200-million, and you have over 5,000 employees. . . .
In those situations, I think you have to plan carefully. You have to have attainable goals that you set for yourself that make you stretch as a district. You have to have people that are dedicated and really know what they're doing.
To do that, there must be an emphasis on staff development and training. Whether it's private sector business or governmental organization, if you're going to be successful and if you're going to be really productive, you have to have training, and you have to constantly be updating the skills of your employees.
Are students more violent than they used to be?
Well, again, I think that's a perception that a lot of people have. I believe that the percentage of good kids in school today is just as high as years ago when I started. I think the difference is that the small percentage of kids that have problems _ are discipline problems and have poor conduct _ they're worse today.
That small percentage is getting worse. In many instances they probably are angrier and on occasion become more violent, although in this county we've been fortunate that we have not had as yet a serious or life-threatening incident at Pasco schools.
I think you have to have a proactive approach to it. You can't just be reactionary. I think you have to look and anticipate problems and things that may occur. You have to look at things through the eyes of the child and where they come from.
When you look at the kids we serve today compared to the kids we served when I first became superintendent in 1974, there is a tremendous difference. We have a very high percentage of kids now who come from economically deprived homes. Approximately 50 percent of our students qualify for free lunches. In 1974, that percentage was very small.
We have a lot of children today who are not in two-parent households. Many of them live with one parent, usually a woman who's trying to eke out a living for herself and her children.
You know people at the board meeting the other night said that we have no business providing health care or clinics for children and my response was, "If we don't, then who will?" That doesn't mean that we're trying to take over the rights of parents or that we're trying to do things that we shouldn't be doing.
What have been your greatest accomplishments?
Well, looking back on that I think because the most difficult problem we've had over the years has been explosive growth in Pasco County, being able at least to this point to keep up with that growth. I think we've added on average one school a year in the past 22 years. Not only have we done that, but we have . . . built additions to every existing school in this county, sometimes doubling the size of those schools. . . .
I have said to principals for years and years, and every one of them can tell you that I've given them this lecture _ you can have the best academic program in the world, but people don't see it. What they do see when they ride by your schools is if the grass is cut, if the weeds are high, if there's paper around or if what they see is dirty. Impressions really mean a lot. What people perceive about it is so important, so I think how schools look is just as important as the academic program that goes on inside it.
I think that students learn best where they have an atmosphere that's conducive to learning. If you take care of a building, and students see you taking care of the building . . . then they in turn will take care of the building. Our vandalism rate in this county is very, very low.
What have been your biggest frustrations?
I think my biggest disappointment was the failure last September of the sales tax (referendum). There are certain people who take credit for that defeat, but I really think that . . . parents didn't get out to the polls. There is in this country today . . . an anti-tax sentiment or an anti-government feeling, that government is too large.
But parents just didn't get out and vote, and one of the reasons I feel parents didn't vote is because since 1990 when we started having drastic cutbacks in funds from the state Legislature, we've been able to handle those in-house and the people who work for the system have made do.
We had years when we didn't give travel (expenses) to administrators who are required by their jobs to travel around the county, we've had to limit the size of salary increases we give to employees, so parents have really not felt the shortfall in funds.
What do you see in the future for the school district?
I'm very proud of this county . . . the fact that we have introduced technology into the curriculum, the fact that we have the organization with the middle schools, the fact that we're taking a look at the high schools and revamping the structure of the high school and the curriculum there, the fact that we have an articulation program of K-through-12th grade in the various learning communities, the fact that we have a continuous progress program that allows children to grow and progress at their own speed.
. . . I'm very optimistic about this system. I believe it's going to do well. If you look at our test scores, we do well. We're at either the national average or in some cases above the national average. I think when you consider the economic rate and the mobility level of our children, that speaks well for our teachers.
What kind of superintendent do you think John Long will be?
Well, having worked with him for 20 years, I think he'll do an excellent job. His management style, I believe, will be a little different from mine. This is not a criticism because I think everybody has their own management style. John by nature is a more high-profile person than I am. I think he'll do an excellent job for the people of Pasco County.