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2 School Board members lose

Max Gessner is defeated, and Janice Starling fails to make runoff

By KELLY RYAN GILMER nd MONIQUE FIELDS

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 11, 2002


Max Gessner is defeated, and Janice Starling fails to make runoff

Two Pinellas County School Board members -- one closely aligned with the superintendent and one recently appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush -- were defeated Tuesday.

Max Gessner, who supported Superintendent Howard Hinesley's expensive contract extension and a controversial new choice plan, was unseated by family literacy teacher Mary Russell, who ran a grass-roots campaign with the help of 80 teachers.

And Janice Starling, whom Bush appointed in July to finish the late Tom Todd's term, didn't even make it to a runoff in a field of five candidates. She came in third behind Todd's daughter, Tiffany, and Mary Brown, who lost to Nancy Bostock four years ago. Tiffany Todd and Brown will meet in the Nov. 5 general election.

But experience wasn't a liability in every race.

Linda Lerner, a 12-year board veteran, managed to win more than 50 percent of the vote to beat three opponents outright and avoid a runoff in District 2. Bostock, a mother of three, handily outpolled Moses Holmes, a retired National Education Association lobbyist aiming to be the board's first elected black member.

Russell, watching the returns at home with her family, could only say "Wow!" as she contemplated beating Gessner, who raised more than $60,000 and had a 1,000-person volunteer corps.

"I'm waiting for someone to pinch me," Russell said. "I was really scared. I thought I was going to lose faith in the system and that money was the bottom line."

The school district is facing its most dramatic change since June 2, 1971, when the School Board voted 5-2 to desegregate every school in the county. That vote led to a federal court order requiring cross-county busing and racial quotas in schools.

Now, the district is beginning a new system of assigning students to schools -- using parental choice as a gradual transition away from neighborhood zoning and forced busing. The choice plan begins next fall, and board members continue to wade through the plan's frustrating details.

The controversy surrounding choice -- and the related board vote to spend thousands to keep Hinesley through the transition -- served as a focal point for the campaigns.

Challengers called for more effective leadership and less rubber-stamping. Incumbents defended their records and their historical knowledge.

In Russell's race against Gessner, the call for new ideas worked.

Russell, a 31-year-old founding member of advocacy group Teachers United for the Future, crafted a testy campaign against a man she pinned as an establishment candidate.

Gessner, 63, said Russell had a narrow range of experience and didn't seem to have a full grasp of the issues. But Russell criticized Gessner for supporting Hinesley's contract, for his private school background and the consistency of his answers to public questions.

"If they want to make a change, then I respect that," Gessner said. "I was proud of the fact that I had a chance to serve for four years."

Russell said she will use her first term on the board to improve teacher morale, particularly by reducing pressure from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

The District 4 race was one of the most intriguing School Board races in recent memory and kept seasoned onlookers guessing about the outcome to the very end.

Brown, who was one of three African-American candidates vying for School Board seats this year, was the only one who survived Tuesday's primary. If she beats Todd in November, she would become the first African-American elected to the School Board. She could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.

Todd, a 24-year-old registered nurse, said, "I'm so overwhelmed. I'm very excited to even be one of the top two."

As for Starling, the day care administrator said she was happy with her results and will continue to work for children and her community. "I did the best I can do with what I had and without knowing how to run a campaign and basically depending on the Lord," said Starling, 38.

In all, five candidates competed for the seat that represents southwest Pinellas County. Mike Pachik and Matthew Patrick Sullivan Sr. rounded out the group, in fourth and fifth place, respectively.

In District 2, Lerner, 59, said she ran a successful race on her record.

"I'm thrilled," Lerner said. "I've been on the board 12 years, and I think people know my record and my effectiveness."

Still, she was challenged by three newcomers to Pinellas politics.

Richard Bennett, a retired quality manager for the automobile industry, garnered the most votes among the three. But his performance in the polls fell short of seriously challenging Lerner.

In the District 5 race, Bostock, 33, said she was buoyed in the last days of the campaign by Holmes' negative radio ads against her. In one day, she said, she was able to raise enough extra money to respond with her own radio ads, condemning his campaign tactics and saying "our children deserve better."

Holmes raised many of the same criticisms of Bostock that Russell raised against Gessner. Bostock and Gessner couldn't explain why their races turned out differently.

In conceding defeat, Holmes, 66, asked, "What's the difference between Mary and me?" Then he paused and said, "I don't want to be negative at this point. This is politics."

Bostock said she will use a second term to push for more "parent-friendly schools" and the expansion of successful reading programs for struggling students. But she had other plans for Wednesday.

"I start writing thank-you notes," she said.

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