BROOKSVILLE — In recent months, Hernando County School Board Member John Sweeney has battled allegations that he used his influence to have his son’s high school grades changed.
In May, he confused and angered fellow board members when he refused to follow protocol in evaluating Schools Superintendent Lori Romano, who he filed a complaint against regarding his son’s leaked grades. Sweeney later dropped the complaint.
Sweeney, who declined to return phone calls or email messages seeking information for this story, seeks his third term in District 1 against private investigator Mark Johnson, 64, and Don Whiting, 68, owner of an insurance company.
School board races are non-partisan and school board members serve four-year terms. Elections are Aug. 26.
As of this week, Whiting led the field in campaign fundraising, grabbing more than $11,800 in contributions, while Johnson had raised more than $7,200 and Sweeney had more than $3,500.
Ahead of the Aug. 26 election, Johnson and Whiting responded to five questions submitted by Hernando Today.
1. Why are you running for office and what differentiates you from your opponent(s)?
Johnson: My skill sets are in breaking problems into component parts, solving them and putting them back together. I can do this for the school district. There are many broken parts. I am passionate about helping the future of Hernando County: our children. I have no hidden agenda and keep politics out of the school board. I am honest. I am not afraid to think outside the box for competent and cost effective solutions to problems. I can make hard decisions when necessary
Whiting: There is a growing concern in Hernando County, in the state of Florida and nationally that our educational system is not accomplishing all it should do or all it can do. The students, parents and educators with whom I have discussed this concern believe our schools are educating students reasonably well; however, a better job must be done to enable the students of Hernando County to compete in a global economy. I am the candidate with a track record of personal outreach and business integrity, a necessary requirement for an effective member of the Hernando County School Board.
Sweeney: I have centered my life around helping others. I hope to leave things better than I found them, and I am truly blessed to serve the students and community as a school board member. I stand out in my race as I am an experienced teacher, and have a Master’s of Educational Leadership. As a board member, I secured additional yearly funding of $2 million. I introduced “tilt” construction for Weeki Wachee and Winding Waters, saving $35 million They are energy-efficient, Lead Certified schools. Teacher salaries are no longer at the bottom of the state. I stopped the “no zero” grading policy. I ensured that we will keep valedictorian and salutatorian designations. I lobbied Washington for increased local control. I am working to improve the quality and quantity of student lunch. I am fighting to save the arts, music, theater, ROTC and electives.
2. What is the biggest issue facing the school district and what would you do to address it?
Johnson: Balancing the budget is a challenge that faces the school board and the continued slipping in the district’s ranking. Both of these issues are tied to funding. The lower a grade a school receives the less in funding it receives from the State of Florida. We need to change the funding formula and to stop unfunded mandates from Tallahassee.
Whiting: The biggest issue facing the school district is managing resources effectively and efficiently. I would use the same expertise in managing the school districts resources as I have in my business; the use of forward thinking, time management and allocation of funds.
Sweeney: The most immediate issue is the far-reaching negative impact of the superintendent’s mandate to reduce course offerings from seven to six per day. As a result, we are losing options for band, music, art, foreign language, ROTC, Allied Health. The board has not voted on this issue, and I have requested that we do. We represent you, and the director of the Florida School Board Association agrees that this should be voted on. I have asked the Attorney General for assistance, and have been informed that it is something that should be addressed at the local level. Please contact board members and attend the meetings.
3. Where do you stand on Penny for Projects, the 1 cent sales tax increase being proposed by the county and school district? Johnson: The school district needs the half-cent sales tax continuation to survive. This tax (half-penny) represents about $6 million to the district. I would have preferred the voters in Hernando County to have more of a choice by having two initiatives on the upcoming ballot. By combining the school tax continuation to an additional half-cent for the county, I am in favor of its passage, and I will advocate its passage in these dire times.
Whiting: The main reason why I support Penny for Projects is that it includes the reauthorization of the half-cent sales tax, which will be used to upgrade technology in the classrooms and to make the much needed repairs to aging Hernando County schools in disrepair.
Sweeney: The school district is continuing a much-needed half-cent, and the county is adding a half-cent. The additional half-cent is dedicated to millions in projects for the school district, and we need the help of the county to get them done. Think of it this way, out of $150 million that will be generated over time, $100 million will directly help our kids.
4. With a tight budget and a list of needed capital improvement projects and technological upgrades, should the school board consider raising the property tax rate? Why or why not?
Johnson: This School Board is of the mind-set that an additional tax increase to property taxes would be counterproductive. I understand that position. Voters, if both an increase in property taxes and a sales tax issue were presented in November, might reject both sources of much-needed income. The idea of waiting until next year for the property tax increase is possibly a better way to go at this time.
Whiting: Allocating financial resources is one of my biggest concerns. Taxing our citizens and small businesses should always be a last resort. We need to always look for efficiencies and cost-cutting before we look to raise taxes on anyone.
Sweeney: The reality is that technology develops at a fast pace and we will always be “catching up.” Our students use technology constantly, it is how they learn and needs to be supported. I was successful in obtaining an additional $2 million in state funding to be used for capital improvements and technology. This funding is per year and will total over $10 million. We live in an economically distressed area, and I am against raising the property tax rate.
5. What is your opinion of the new Common Core Standards that replaced the FCAT?
Johnson: We need to stop teaching to a test, it just doesn’t work. There must be a better way to analyze the effectiveness of a school district for funding and educational purposes. Florida ranks 47th across our great nation in equity in funding of school districts. We are supporting Pinellas, Hillsborough and other larger districts that are more affluent than Hernando County, and that does not make sense in these hard economic times.
Whiting: I am not in favor of the federal government using their yard stick to measure our school successes. I’m all for more rigorous standards across the board for our students to help them compete nationally and globally, especially in the areas for math and science. I’m not for wholesale data mining and not for federal government takeover of our educational system.
Sweeney: The state is not supporting common core and it is implementing its own standards. I am 100 percent against Common Core. It is an attempt to nationalize education and violates the Constitution.
Regarding the FCAT or any yearly test, I have major concerns. The FCAT is given with a couple of months left in the school year. It should be at the end of the year, and again at the beginning of the year. The purpose needs to be to help the students. Isn’t that why we have public education?