Black School Board candidates pose tough choices
By MONIQUE FIELDS, Times Staff Writer
For a split second, black leaders in Pinellas County, both Democrats and Republicans, were aligning themselves behind Janice Starling.
The Republican was appointed last month to the Pinellas County School Board by Gov. Jeb Bush and hopes to become the first African-American elected to the board. A few days later, Mary Brown, who is black and a Democrat, announced her plans to run for the same seat.
Almost immediately, local NAACP chapter president Darryl Rouson, who is pushing for diversity on the School Board, heard fracturing.
"I'm afraid we may lose the seat because we have two African-Americans going (head to head)," he said.
Three African-Americans are running for the nonpartisan School Board seats this fall. Brown, a candidate in 1998, and Starling are running in District 4; Moses Holmes Jr., a businessman and former lobbyist for the National Education Association, is seeking a seat in District 5.
Other District 4 candidates are Mike Pachik and Michael P. Sullivan; Holmes will be incumbent Nancy Bostock's only opponent in District 5.
Some blacks see three candidates as an unusual chance to change history. Others, though, say this election leaves local African-American leaders with some hard questions: Should blacks focus on Starling, the governor's choice? Should they split their efforts between the District 4 and District 5 races? Should they simply focus on getting out the vote?
Whatever the answers, one thing is clear: Blacks see this as a critical vote for the county's African-Americans, who make up 18 percent of the school system's student population.
The election comes at a time when many blacks worry about the state's emphasis on standardized tests. It also comes as the district embraces a school choice plan that will bring the most dramatic changes to the system since desegregation. Which means blacks should coalesce around one African-American candidate, some observers say.
"There's the old cliche about divide and conquer," said Charles Rutledge, the only living plaintiff in the 1964 case that brought court-ordered desegregation to Pinellas. "We need (to support) one."
There's apparently no single reason why no black has won a School Board seat. Some think it's as simple as money: Black candidates generally haven't raised as much cash as whites. Others say the problem is the lack of single-member districts.
The lack of an elected black board member has been partly why the county's African-Americans feel like a "forgotten class," said Watson Haynes II, co-chair of Jeb Bush's campaign in Pinellas County.
But he says black candidates must win over voters of all races.
"It's a matter of getting blacks and whites to vote for you in a county as big as Pinellas," he said. "Race is a factor for those who want to use it."
In the end, voters should vote for the best candidate, Haynes said. The nonpartisan race gives voters a lot of flexibility. Haynes says he supports Starling, a fellow Republican, and Moses Holmes, a Democrat.
The election is so important that a group of ministers and community organizations gathered to discuss it earlier this month. They wanted to evaluate the races "and see if we can put the suggestion to either one of the candidates to back out or lend support," said the Rev. Gustave Victor, a pastor and community activist who attended the meeting.
At the meeting, participants came to no consensus on whom to support.
State Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg, said that even if a black candidate wins this year, he and others will continue to push for single-member districts, an issue that will appear on the Nov. 5 ballot. Right now, School Board members each represent one district but are elected by voters countywide.
Even if an African-American wins a seat on the board, Peterman and others say the county could face the same issues in another four years. They say single-member districts would almost certainly ensure the election of a black candidate.
He isn't overly optimistic about this fall's election.
"This could probably be the year," he said, "but I still won't hold my breath."
Starling, a longtime Republican who runs a day care center in southwest St. Petersburg, is the second African-American to sit on the School Board.
So far, some blacks are concerned that Starling doesn't belong to the party that most African-Americans call their own. To some, that's a large hurdle to jump, although these elections are officially nonpartisan.
"The majority of African-Americans are Democrats. One has to ask the question: Is the governor trying to play politics here to pull African-American support?" said the Rev. Louis Murphy, pastor at Mount Zion Progressive Baptist Church. "I say in the same breath we need to be at the table regardless of which party is there."
Complicating the issue further is Mary Brown's narrow loss in 1998. Republican Nancy Bostock defeated Brown, a Democrat, with 52 percent of the vote. Brown got 48 percent.
That performance has fueled the hope that she can win this time.
"Mary Brown is eminently qualified for the position," Rouson said, "and it would have done us well had she been appointed."
Rouson pointed out that as president of the NAACP he can't endorse candidates. But he clearly has stepped back from his support of Starling a few weeks earlier.
Some think that voters, no matter their race, will support black candidates, and they point to Pinellas County Commissioner Calvin Harris as the example. Harris was appointed to the commission in 1997 by Gov. Lawton Chiles and became the first African-American to serve on the five-member board. He later ran for office and won.
The County Commission race lost its partisan element as political leaders became focused on ensuring that an African-American would be elected. Republicans provided both financial and organizational support to Harris, a Democrat.
Darryl Paulson, a professor of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, said that's likely to happen again in the School Board election.
That's why many believe Starling has an advantage in this race even over other Republicans such as Tiffany Todd. The death of her father, Tom Todd, created the open District 4 seat that Starling filled.
Local Republican leaders believe that, if elected, Starling would be the first black from their party to win a countywide contest in Pinellas.
"Republicans clearly want to make inroads in the African-American community in Pinellas County," Paulson said. "The Republicans are really going to make extraordinary effort to make sure (Starling) retains that position."
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