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Board member's private-school choice upsets some

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 25, 2002

In 1998, Robert Wiggins made it clear why he was running for a seat on the Hernando School Board.

"I am seeking this office because I have two children who will be entering the school system pretty soon," Wiggins wrote in response to a questionnaire from the St. Petersburg Times. "I would like to make positive changes before they start school rather than wait until after they have graduated."

It was a refrain he repeated in interviews and at public appearances.

But four years later, as he runs for a second term on the board, Wiggins is drawing fire from his opponents because his children, ages 8 and 6, are attending a private school -- Spring Hill Christian Academy.

Some of his opponents say he misled the public. Wiggins says any confusion was unintentional.

"I probably should have worded it differently, I give you that much," he said Friday. "I meant to say that they would be entering school pretty soon -- school, not public school. School system would include schools nationwide, schools countywide."

Wiggins says he and his wife, Jennifer, decided before they were married to go the private school route because they want school to reinforce the Christian values their kids hear at home and in church. He says that's something public schools simply are not allowed to do.

Candidate Jim Polk says it is admirable that Wiggins wants a private school to help instill Christian values in his children. But he says it takes some "audacity" for Wiggins to sit on the public School Board when his children attend a private school.

And he does not care for Wiggins' explanation of the situation.

"I think to go back now and to try and redefine what he originally said, for me, is unacceptable," Polk said.

Stephen Galaydick, who was unseated by Wiggins in 1998 and is seeking to regain the seat, says he was under the impression Wiggins' children would be enrolling in public school from the start.

"If he's not putting his children in (public school), does that mean the system is not good enough and that his four years were a failure?" said Galaydick, whose son is a junior at Central High School.

Candidate Irvin Homer, who spent 30 years as a teacher and administrator in public education, does not recall what Wiggins said about his intentions in 1998. But in listening to Wiggins on a local radio show Thursday, Homer said he got the impression Wiggins has no intention of putting his kids in the public schools now.

"How can you as a School Board member make policies that affect other children but not your own?" asked Homer, whose great-granddaughter attends Chocachatti Elementary School.

School district officials could not give a clear indication of how many of their employees have children in private schools. But it does happen, occasionally even among administrators.

Wiggins' decision to go private did not keep the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association from recommending him to voters as their preferred candidate in the District 1 race on Sept. 10.

Wiggins says the county's public schools are doing a good job academically. It's just that they cannot provide the spiritual training his family wants.

Homer says religious training should be done at home or at church.

Polk says there's nothing wrong with someone choosing a private school for their children. But a person who does has no business serving on a public school board, he said.

"The two are simply not compatible," said Polk, whose children attended public schools and whose granddaughter is a Powell Middle School student. "Let him go seek a position on the board of the private school."

Wiggins says he expects his children to attend public schools eventually. But his timetable for doing so continues to evolve.

He told Times staffers on Monday that his children -- one is a third-grader, the other a first-grader -- would enter public schools at least by high school. On Friday, he said it could be within three to five years.

Wiggins said he has friends with children in public schools who support his candidacy. But he realizes not everyone agrees with his decision.

"It's obviously an issue," Wiggins said. "I don't think it's that important. I still wanted to see our public schools improve over the last four years -- which I think they have."

-- Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com.

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