School Board races are nonpartisan and elections are countywide, but members must live within the district they represent. Board members serve four-year terms and make an annual salary of $42,627, an amount set by the state.
It is the first time Swett, 74, has run for political office. Cummings won his first term in 2018, defeating businessman Ed Wilson with 56% of the vote.
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Cummings, 53, who served as a correctional officer before joining the board in 2018, believes the school board will need his four years of experience, including serving for two, one-year terms as chairman and one term as vice chairman in four years.
Cummings has served as pastor of New Zion Missionary Baptist Church for the past six years. Cummings points to his service as chairman during the first months of the COVID-19 and leading the appointment of Superintendent of Schools Diane Gullett.
“I look at things from a different view,” Cummings said. “I put things in perspective and make sure that every voice is heard in our community. We’re heading in the right direction and we have the right pieces of the puzzle.”
Swett, who retired from the post office in 2005, said “my life experience, my work experience, my education, my temperament and my commitment to make the Marion County school district qualifies me for this position.”
“I believe the Marion County School Board performance of the past several years has been dismal due to the lack of planning, the lack of foresight, and the lack of communication,” Swett said.
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Back in 2005-06, during the first Florida school district ranking by SchoolDigger.com, Marion County ranked 31st of the state’s 67 counties, after two lab school districts were removed from the tally.
By 2011-12, the district was ranked 44th. By 2015-16, the ranking slipped to 56th and by 2019-20 it slid to 60th. Under Gullett, the district is now 59th.
Candidates on the campaign trail
In political fundraising, Cummings leads with $10,370, including $220 of his own money and $10,150 from 85 donors. Swett has raised 9,750, including $3,550 in personal funds and $6,180 from 39 donors.
One of Swett’s contributors is school board member Don Browning, who was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last August to serve in District 2. Browning, 79, who is not running in 2022, has been at odds with the other school board members, especially Cummings, during the year he has been on the board. Browning donated twice for $300 in total.
Two other Swett donors are Patricia Driscoll and Robert Schmidt, who were removed from a school board meeting early this year and placed on trespass warnings. Driscoll donated twice for $775 and Schmidt and his wife donated seven times for a total of $1,280.
Cummings and Swett were interviewed by the Star-Banner for 30 minutes each to discuss educational issues. They were asked about the district and how it has been on a downward slide for more than a decade.
On the campaign trail, many of the candidates have shared that they should to be elected to right a sinking ship. But it has taken more than a decade to decline and some say it will take time for it to rise back up.
They were asked about ways to increase in-person parent involvement in a technology-driven era and how to make sure that students are progressing now that state testing has been replaced with progress monitoring.
Here is a synopsis of the comments made by those candidates, who are listed in alphabetical order.
Before Cummings was elected to the school board in 2018, he had worked for the Florida Department of Corrections since 1994. He has been pastor of New Zion Missionary Baptist Church the past six years.
He also was the pastor of United Missionary Baptist Church in Dunnellon for 10 years and also taught at United Theological Seminary, which is based in Louisiana but has a small campus in Ocala.
Cummings, a 1987 Forest High School graduate, earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Edward Waters College in Jacksonville in 1987 and a bachelor’s degree from United Theological Seminary, both magna cum laude.
Cummings said he has provided steady guidance through challenging times.
“Throughout these last four years, in the midst of trying times, we were able to move the needle,” Cummings said of stabilizing a decade long decline in the county school ranking.
Cummings said when he came on the board, he was immediately voted vice chairman and then chairman the following year. By the end of the first year as chairman, the pandemic began and he led the board while it hired Gullett.
During that time, there was a legal battle with Heidi Maier, the district’s last elected school superintendent. In 2018, voters voted to no longer elect school superintendents, who are now appointed by the school board.
“There were strained relationships with our superintendent (Maier),” Cummings said. “I was able to build a relationship with her (Maier) and the transition to a new superintendent was a lot smoother than many people thought it would be.”
When it comes to Marion County’s ranking, Cummings said the district did not get to this point overnight. It had taken more than a decade for the district to decline, long before he was on the school board.
“We had a big decline and then we kept going and going down,” he noted. “We made it to near the bottom. And we’ve been there and it’s going to take a time, just like turning a aircraft carrier, to make that turn.”
Cummings said the district now has an appointed school superintendent who needs time to implement her plan – a plan outside the realm of a pandemic.
“We’re not out of COVID but we’re in a better place with vaccines,” Cummings said. “We’re able to have schools open. We must give her (Gullett) the opportunity to implement some of the things that she she knows work.”
Cummings said that every kid doesn’t want to go to college and that’s why in the past eight years vocational education has been expanded greatly.
“Making sure that these students have options is a big piece of education,” Cummings said. “They have to have the soft skills necessary to perform any any job. And we’re going to move to another level with vocational education.”
As to the state ending Florida Standards Assessments, Cummings said that “the district must have a way to assess growth” and the district has been using progress monitoring for many years, even with the state testing.
Cummings also noted that COVID-19 has reduced parent participation in person, but it has boosted parent participation through technology.
“I look forward to working with any parent and having that open door policy we have always had,” Cummings said. “If a parent wants to call me, they’re able to call me and work on their situations.”
In closing, Cummings said he should be re-elected because the district is in a better place and is not as bad as state rankings indicate. He noted the ranking is one of many gauges to a good district. The district is only one point from being a B district, he noted.
“Not only do I have a child in the school system, I have grandchildren in school system,” he said. “I’m working hard to make this district the best that it can be in the state. I really believe we’re heading in the right direction.”
Political newcomer Steve Swett retired from the United States Postal Service in 2005 after a 34-year career. His last position was postmaster in Dunnellon, from 1994-2005. He was a postal manager in Miami from 1974-1994.
He graduated high school in Miami in 1966, attended what is now Miami Dade College and was in the first graduating class of Florida International University. Swett earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 1974.
Swett, who has been married for 52 years and has two grown children, served as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force during Vietnam, leaving the service in 1970 to attend college.
“I think my life experience, my work experience, my education, my temperament and my commitment to the Marion County school district qualifies me for this position,” Swett noted.
He continued, stating: “I believe the performance of the past several years of the Marion County School Board has been dismal. The lack of planning, the lack of foresight, the lack of communication we have with the other governmental agencies.”
Swett said that he believes the school board “made a good choice in hiring Dr. Gullett.”
“I believe she’s capable, but she needs a chance,” Swett said. “So credit to the school board for doing something that they were mandated to do. I believe part of the problem with the Marion County School Board is their leadership, their lack of vision and lack of planning. We can do better than this.”
Swett said that all school board members have been sitting back for a decade and not using their “bully pulpit” to signal to other government agencies that the school board needs a seat at the table, especially in regards to funding growth.
Bully pulpit is defined as “using a public office or position of authority that provides its occupant with an outstanding opportunity to speak out on any issue.” This term was coined by President Theodore Roosevelt in the early 1900s.
“Nobody on the school board uses their bully pulpit,” Swett said, adding that the district “could have done better since 2014” in terms of establishing impact fees or working with the other agencies to collect money to build schools.
Though the district has added many new vocational programs since the 1 mill tax for operations was passed eight years ago, more needs to be done, he said. Swett wants to bring back on-the-job training, where students can leave school to go to work.
“Back in my day, back in the stone age, we had certified business education development,” Swett said. “You went to school a half a day and to work for half a day. You went to school to learn to read and write but then you worked.”
Swett said more instruction should focus on “basic life skills and critical thinking.”
“I was in the Air Force and that is where many students went to learn a trade,” said Swett, a Vietnam-era veteran. He added that many of those servicemen came out with a trade that led to a successful career as a civilian.
Swett said his experience in the post office should be considered. He has been in charge of budgets. Swett said he will use the bully pulpit to fight for the school district and the funding it deserves.
“I know most people don’t know me,” Swett said. “And they think that I am not sincere, but I am sincere. I don’t have all the answers, but I do want the school system to be better and I will use the bully pulpit to do that.”
Joe Callahan can be reached at (352) 817-1750 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JoeOcalaNews.
School Board candidates in District 3 are nonpartisan. They must live in District 3, though voters across the county can vote. Board members earn $42,627 annually, a salary set by the state. The winner will be decided at Aug. 23 primary.
Experience: School board member for four years; served two years as chairman and one year as vice chairman; worked for the Florida Department of Corrections from 1994-2018; current pastor of New Zion Missionary Baptist Church for six years; former pastor of United Missionary Baptist Church in Dunnellon for 10 years; taught at United Theological Seminary, which is based in Louisiana but has a small campus in Ocala.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration from Edward Waters College in Jacksonville in 1987; bachelor’s degree from United Theological Seminary, both magna cum laude; 1987 graduate of Forest High School.
Family: Married to wife, Lisa, for 17 years; six children; four grandchildren, ages newborn to age 16.
Learn more: For more information go to Eric Cummings 4 School Board on Facebook.
Experience: Retired from the United States Postal Service in 2005 after a 34-year career, serving as postmaster in Dunnellon from 1994-2005; he served as postal manager in Miami from 1974-1994; and Vietnam veteran, U.S. Air Force, 1966-70.
Education: Attended what is now Miami Dade College after graduation from high school in Miami in 1966; He was in the first graduation class of Florida International University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 1974.
Family: Married for 53 years to wife, Mary; two grown sons and four grandchildren.