Advertisement
  1. Archive

Teacher pay, state funding are focus

School Board, District 1

It's all about money in the District 1 race for a seat on the Hernando County School Board: how to find more for teachers and students, how to spend and manage it, and lately, how it spells trouble for a political campaign.

Candidates John Sweeney and Richard McDermott, both former teachers, are in agreement on the need to increase teacher pay and build more schools to ease overcrowding. They both vow to raise the county's lowly state ranking in per-student funding.

If the winner finds effective answers to those pressing questions, he might someday get a Hernando County school named after him.

But first, Sweeney must convince voters that his wider experience as an educator will give him a real edge on the School Board.

And McDermott must overcome the personal challenges - including his recent firing as a teacher at Nature Coast Technical High School, and his arrest on misdemeanor fraud charges - that have threatened his candidacy.

McDermott

Financial management is a cornerstone of McDermott's campaign. He believes the School Board has done a poor job of cutting waste and inefficiency, and worker salaries have suffered as a result.

"I know a confidential secretary who's been with the district 26 years, and she makes $12 an hour," McDermott said. "Is that fair?"

He has called for the hiring of a districtwide grant writer, a position he said could more than pay for itself in state and federal grants the district currently forgoes. And he points to a few specific positions that could be consolidated; for example, he said, every school doesn't need its own testing coordinator.

The School Board must also aggressively lobby Tallahassee to boost per-student funding from its current ranking, 66th of the state's 67 counties, McDermott said.

"We need to start with zero-based budgeting," he added. "We need to put teachers and curriculum first, instead of last."

But his own family budget has been the source of problems for McDermott in recent years.

In 2001 he filed for bankruptcy protection but did not pursue the case to closure. And last July, a judge issued a final order of eviction on a Fordham Street house McDermott rented in order to qualify as a District 1 candidate, even as he was moving into a newly purchased home on Mercedes Street.

McDermott's troubles snowballed in October, when his driver's license was suspended for 15 days for failing to keep up with child-support payments. On Oct. 17, he was demoted from the position of teacher to long-term substitute at Nature Coast Technical High School after he failed to take a required state certification test on time.

On Oct. 20, he was fired outright by the district, after he said he violated cash-handling policies by not immediately submitting $1,805 in field trip and bowling team funds. And on Oct. 24, he was arrested and briefly jailed on misdemeanor charges of bouncing a $75 check at Publix.

McDermott said he became overwhelmed with the multiple responsibilities of teaching, running a campaign, consulting for Chick-fil-A and starting his own skin-cream business.

But he said he's learned a lot over the years about how to manage budgets, beginning when he helped his father run a general contracting business that built Marriott resorts, supermarkets and part of the Breckenridge ski resort in Colorado.

"I was involved in running the budgets, the finances, every aspect of that business since I was 15 years old," McDermott said. "Budgets aren't difficult, they really aren't. As long as you've got the money."

And he said his personal experiences with financial adversity would help him to be an effective School Board member.

"I'm the first to admit that I've grown through this process," he said. "That's something I bring to the table."

Sweeney

He might be a small business owner, but Sweeney talks like a teacher.

Ask him about his best qualifications for a School Board seat, and he mentions first his master's degree in education, his certifications in Exceptional Student Education and educational leadership, and nearly a decade's worth of teaching experience in Hernando County schools.

McDermott has criticized that record, saying Sweeney failed to gain reappointment at some of those teaching jobs.

But Sweeney says the criticism shows a lack of understanding, since teachers who work outside the field of their certification routinely get such letters. In the first case, he was teaching language arts as a favor, he said.

"I taught three consecutive years in that school, and I was also on a list of teachers (nominated) for teacher of the year," Sweeney said, referring to his first job in the district. "I've had nine years of continuous employment in education."

He served as ESE department chairman at Springstead High School, and has criticized what he describes as the district's over-reliance upon center schools and inclusion for special-needs students.

"If there are 35 students in a classroom, we could wind up with 17, 18 or 19 ESE students," Sweeney said. "It becomes a very difficult class for the ESE teacher and the regular teacher to manage, and learning suffers."

In addition to spreading the ESE load among all schools, there should be full gifted programs at all schools so students don't have to be bused weekly to get the enrichment they need, Sweeney said.

He has criticized the School Board's use of magnet schools, which he said has created an unfair disparity with overcrowded neighborhood schools, and favors a gradual rezoning. The board should also exert stronger financial control over the district, particularly on construction projects, he said.

Sweeney believes the district should hire a professional lobbyist to help it press Tallahassee for a more equitable share of state funding, perhaps sharing the costs with other rural districts facing similar problems.

Above all, he said, boosting teacher pay is a top priority, even if that means doing without other programs.

"What we need to do is pay the teachers first," Sweeney said. "Having a qualified, certified teacher in the classroom can't be replaced by anything, including books."

As of Oct. 13, Sweeney had raised $3,944.74 toward his campaign. McDermott reported $1,630 in contributions as of Sept. 29.

Both the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association Union and the Hernando Builders Association had endorsed McDermott. But the groups withdrew their support in the wake of his arrest.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

FAST FACTS

THE CANDIDATES

Richard McDermott

McDermott, 35, was raised in Nebraska and moved to Hernando County in 1990. He was recently demoted and then fired from his job as an English and humanities teacher at Nature Coast Technical High School. He also works as a marketing consultant for Chick-fil-A and sells a topical pain reliever and skin products under the brand C5 Enterprises. He earned a bachelor's degree in criminology from Saint Leo University. He is divorced and has a daughter and a son. He is president of the First Hernando Republican Club and a member of the Masonic Lodge.

John Sweeney

Sweeney, 44, was born in Queens, N.Y., and raised on Long Island. 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 is opening a wine and gift shop in Spring Hill. He previously worked as a law office administrator and investigator. 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.the candidates

Richard McDermott

McDermott, 35, was raised in Nebraska and moved to Hernando County in 1990. He was recently demoted and then fired from his job as an English and humanities teacher at Nature Coast Technical High School. He also works as a marketing consultant for Chick-fil-A and sells a topical pain reliever and skin products under the brand C5 Enterprises. He earned a bachelor's degree in criminology from Saint Leo University. He is divorced and has a daughter and a son. He is president of the First Hernando Republican Club and a member of the Masonic Lodge.

John Sweeney

Sweeney, 44, was born in Queens, N.Y., and raised on Long Island. 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 is opening a wine and gift shop in Spring Hill. He previously worked as a law office administrator and investigator. 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.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement