In what several of the candidates said was their biggest public event so far in this campaign, the men and women running to serve on the Pinellas County School Board later this year gathered this afternoon in St. Petersburg at a forum hosted by the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club.
After hearing the introductory speaker cite a raft of negative statistics about performance in the district, (such as the fact that there are five elementary schools in the county among the state's 20 lowest performers in reading this past year), District 7 incumbent Rene Flowers said, "it sounded like the sky was falling when it comes to our children in Pinellas County," but she assured the audience that she was part of a group in the district who was "moving the needle" when it comes to the scholastic performance of the students she represents. But she admitted that there was still an achievement gap that needed to be addressed.
Flowers will face write-in candidate Irene Olive Cates but not until November. All of the other races are on the ballot right now with absentee voting underway. Cates said there needed to be more parental involvement and a focus on family literacy, not just child literacy.
Nobody has served longer on the board than native New Yorker Linda Lerner, first elected to the board back in 1990. The District 6 incumbent is being challenged this summer by Maureen Ahern, a former reporter for the St. Petersburg Times
and the wife of GOP state lawmaker Larry Ahern. Ahern questioned why the current board - and specifically Lerner - has taken so long to come up with a strategic plan to address the myriad of issues going on in the district. She wanted to know why they haven't expanded fundamental schools, saying there was a huge demand for that. And she said it was time to take a step back and look at the Common Core standards.
Ahern was questioned by one Tiger Bay member that she would like to bring religious figures "into the schools." When challenged about that, she clarified that she meant that different sectors of the community such as business leaders, elected officials and yes religious officials should be recruited to be "a voice" in getting parents more involved with their kids education.
Lerner said she's proud to be an educator, but bristles at criticism by Ahern that the board needs people with diverse backgrounds."I don't think we need a new voice. My voice is okay. I think I have the same voice. Except it's more knowledgable and more experienced and I've kept up my lifelong commitment not only to public service but community service."
The District 4 seat is an open one with the departure of Robin Wikle this year. Early Learning Coalition Chairman Ken Peluso is squaring off against former Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverly Billiris and former Dunedin High math teacher John Nygren. Peluso distinguished himself from the field today when he was the only candidate who said he believed that creationism should be taught in the schools, side by side with evolution.
Billiris has been teaching at Tarpon Springs Elementary School and says she's seen firsthand the frustrations that today's teachers have with over testing of students. "It's not the teachers, it's the mandates," she said that is the problem with education today. "We need to make some strong changes, and I can be that voice to make those changes."
USFSP professor Kent Curtis (who CL profiled yesterday
) is challenging incumbent Peggy O'Shea in District 3. O' Shea was not at today's forum, as she is undergoing treatment after recently being diagnosed with breast cancer. Curtis is probably the most progressive candidate who's running on the August 26 ballot. He said he's concerned as a member of the community. "We've got to succeed in ensuring that every child - every child
- whether boy or girl, high-income, low-income or in the middle, receives an appropriate and a quality education. And is educated, not just tested."
District Two is represented currently by Terry Krassner. Her opponent, software engineer Chris Tauchnitz, consistently bangs the drums for more parental involvement. When asked how he would achieve that, he said he would contact St. Petersburg officials and ask for funding from them, as well as create "curriculum nights," with parents and teachers gathering at individual schools.
In three of these races - in Districts 2,3 and 6, the winner will be decided on August 26, meaning if Pinellas County voters are otherwise not truly turned on by this month's primary ballot, they will in fact be deciding the composition of nearly half the board this summer.