Thursday, August 14, 2014

Head of the class: Asher Edelson is Hillsborough's youngest school board candidate

Posted By on Thu, Aug 14, 2014 at 11:49 AM

click to enlarge Edelson, 20, lives with Tourette's syndrome. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • Edelson, 20, lives with Tourette's syndrome.
Asher Edelson leans against the bar at Maestro’s, waiting for his name to be called. The Straz Center eatery plays host once a month to the Tampa Tiger Bay Club, and today 10 candidates for the Hillsborough County School Board are about to engage in a Q&A with the public. He’s not noticeably nervous, though this is one of the biggest candidate forums he’s attended to date. Upon hearing his name, he takes his seat in the middle of the row of candidates.

His responses to questions are concise and occasionally illuminating. At times he appears to be fidgeting more than most, as if he has a crick in his neck. But he registers with the audience and even with some of his competitors, with District 6 opponent April Griffin declaring that she’s completely fallen for her younger opponent.

Afterwards, Asher’s dad, Steve, who was not able to see the forum live, comes by to give him a ride home. As father and son leave the restaurant, a waitress comes up to Steve and says, ”He was so good,” nodding at Asher.

In addition to living with his parents and not being old enough to drink, Asher Edelson has a burden that none of the other candidates running in Hillsborough County has to endure: He has Tourette’s syndrome. Though it could be a deterrent, the 20-year-old HCC-Ybor student says his condition just makes him work harder to try to achieve more.

A few weeks after the Tiger Bay performance, Asher is with his parents at their waterfront townhouse in South Tampa, a condo with a spectacular view of Tampa Bay.

Elizabeth Edelson says that her son displayed a lot of nervous tics when he was growing up, but she didn’t think it was anything significant, and felt it would go away in due time. But by the time he turned 7 she realized that it wasn’t going away. That’s when Asher was first diagnosed with Tourette’s.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) identifies Tourette’s syndrome as a neurological disorder characterized by repetitive, sterotyped involuntary movements and vocalizations, called tics. It’s estimated that 200,000 Americans have the most severe form, and as many as one in 100 exhibit milder and less complex symptoms.

“I’ve always been open about who I am and what I have to deal with,” Asher says now. His mother says that when he was in elementary school he would talk to his class and describe what Tourette’s was, openly discussing it to make them feel more at ease.

There have been both highs and lows. After graduating from Plant High School two years ago, he looked forward to going out on his own and attending Florida Atlantic University in South Florida, but had to withdraw after his symptoms became an issue. Since then he’s had deep brain stimulation surgery, which he says has led to a noticeable improvement in his symptoms.

Elizabeth Edelson says that the Hillsborough County School District was never proactive in helping Asher; she had to learn on her own that he needed to use an Alpha Smart keyboard since he couldn’t effectively hold a pen. “He’s got a 504 plan. He’s supposed to get that,” she says, referring to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which guarantees certain rights to people with disabilities, including access to a free and appropriate education.

“You have to know things,” she says. “They’re not going to tell you. You have to know and research it on your own and be the advocate for someone with disabilities.”

Elizabeth is a choreographer, Steve a chiropractor. Brooklyn natives who came to Florida in the 1970s, they say they don’t know where their son got the political gene, or the writing gene for that matter. At the age of 12 Asher penned a fantasy novel, and then followed up with a second tome.

But even though the issue of disabled children has been a big one in the school board campaign due to the deaths of two special-needs students while on school property, disability rights are not part of Edelson’s platform in his run to be District 6 School Board member. Nutrition is.

Asher used to weigh 200 pounds, but is now down to 140 after he realized that he simply wasn’t eating very well. His conversion began in the fall of 2013 after he learned about the daunting effects of a poor diet from the documentaries Food, Inc. and Supersize Me, and he went on an organic-oriented diet.

“The quality of nutrition in our county’s cafeterias is atrocious,” he declares. “This processed junk food is filled with additives and hormones and is tainting our students’ ability to achieve in the classroom.”

But officials with the district push back on the idea that they’re not offering enough healthy choices, given the fact that they serve over 200,000 meals a day.

“We’re actually years ahead of the curve on things like implementing whole grains into the menu, no trans fat, no fried foods, things like that we’ve been doing for years, so our children are more accustomed to this type of menu,” says Ginain Grayes, marketing and communications manager with Hillsborough’s School Foodservice. She says that there’s also a new program requiring some schools to offer new vegetable-based menus to get children accustomed to eating healthier meals because “if they’re throwing it into the trash, they’re not eating.”

Former County Commissioner and Tampa mayoral candidate Ed Turanchik says it’s a good issue to campaign on. Turanchik’s son attended Plant and knew Asher. “I think it’s really extraordinary that someone would take this incredible step to run for public office at that age,” he says, adding that he doesn’t believe the 20-year-old is ready just yet to take on the responsibilities of the job. “He’s taking a really aggressive step to serve the community and I think well of him.”

Former City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena said Edelson “blew my socks off,” but like Turanchik says that she is supporting another candidate in the race.

But with paltry fundraising totals and a notable absence at recent campaign forums, Asher himself seems not to be completely invested in his race as early voting commences this week. But he’s already made a significant impression, win or lose.

With lots of issues roiling the Hillsborough County School Board, April Griffin is advising voters that they can ill afford to pay for on-the-job training in the District 6 race.

With two incumbents already opting not to run for re-election to the school board this summer, Griffin was ready to join them when she announced last year that she was going to run for County Commission in 2014. But she ultimately dropped out of that race, and didn’t commit to run again for her countywide school board seat until earlier this year.

At that point, 12 people had opted to run for the presumably open seat. But with problems exploding in the district, Griffin says she felt it was her mission to return as the loyal opposition to Superintendent Mary Ellen Elia.

Five people dropped out of the race, and undoubtedly others may now regret that they’ve chosen to remain, as Griffin’s name recognition and support make her a popular favorite to gain another four years.

Her challengers are USF professor Stacy Hahn, longtime volunteer (and Tampa Tribune endorsee) Paula Meckley, Temple Terrace Council member Allison McGillivray, real estate consultant Lee Sierra, Dipa Shaw, Green Party member Randy Toler, and HCC student Edelson.

In District 2 (Southwest Hillsborough and South Tampa), the establishment favorite is Michelle Shimberg, running against former teacher Michael Weston and private school operator Sally Harris. Shimberg is married to attorney Robert Shimberg, of the well-known and established Tampa Shimbergs, and she’s blowing away Weston and Harris in terms of fundraising. And she’s the consensus pick of the establishment, being endorsed by both the Times and Tribune.

In District 4, encompassing conservative eastern Hillsborough County, insurance agent and former Brandon Chamber of Commerce head Melissa Snively has impressed the powers that be, running against former Army veteran Dee Preether and Christian conservative Terry Kemple, who’s making yet another run for local office.

But the energy is in the District 6 race, where Griffin’s outspokenness about Elia has dominated headlines, and led to criticism from some of her opponents, like Stacey Hahn, who told CL that Griffin had “kind of proven she can’t collaborate. She’s not a team player, she can’t build consensus.” 

Lee Sierra said it was unfair that Griffin gave Elia an “unsatisfactory” grade in all nine categories on her annual evaluation last fall. “I don’t think anyone deserves a zero,” he said.

“I believe I’m the best person for the job,” Griffin told CL last week. “I believe that the experience that I have is going to help guide this district over the next four years, especially with two new board members coming in. Again, I make no apologies for asking the tough questions. I said I was going to do that in the beginning, and that’s what my supporters – that’s what the people who vote for me wanted, and that’s what I’ve done.”

Five of the seven seats on the Pinellas County School board are up for election this year, and four of them will be on the August 26 ballot.
The most progressive candidate is USFSP professor Kent Curtis, perhaps best known for having founded the Edible Peace Patch Project, a nonprofit organization that teaches kids about local, organic, sustainable urban gardening and nutrition. (He is no longer affiliated with the organization.) In a brief appearance at a candidates forum hosted by the Historic Kenwood Neighborhood Association last week, he gave a passionate speech about why he’s concerned about the quality of Pinellas County schools — and not just because he has “skin in the game” (his two kids are in the system).

“It concerns me because I know that our public schools are places where our communities are remade each and every day. If we want to live up to the promise of democracy, where every child has an opportunity, we want to fulfill the promise of merit that our country promises to every child. If we want a strong and healthy economy, and strong and harmonious neighborhoods, we have got to succeed in our public schools.”
But Curtis is in a difficult spot electorally speaking. His District 3 opponent, incumbent Peggy O’Shea, has been endorsed by the Times and has been vacant on the campaign trail, as she contends with chemotherapy treatments following a breast cancer diagnosis.

The most intense battle may be in District 6 (Seminole & Pinellas Park), where veteran school board member Linda Lerner is being challenged by former journalist Maureen Ahern. With Pinellas producing some of the worst reading scores of schools in the state, Ahern says the board needs new blood, indicating that Lerner’s 24-year tenure hasn’t produced positive results.

The District 4 race in Tarpon Springs is one that probably won’t be decided until November. Former Mayor Beverly Billiris was an educator, and she lambastes the emphasis on standardized testing. The other opponents are retired teacher John Nygren and Ken Peluso, a retired chiropractor and former chairman of the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas. Peluso made waves at a Tiger Bay Club debate last week by saying that he believes in teaching creationism. No other candidate agreed, and later in the week he backed away from that position.

The other race on this month’s ballot is in District 2, where Terry Krasner, a former principal and teacher, squares off against Chris Tauchnitz, a software engineer who is arguing for more fundamental schools and an emphasis on greater parental involvement.

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