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Vote results put Hinesley on the spot

A shift in power on the School Board will likely pose new challenges for the superintendent.

By MONIQUE FIELDS and KELLY RYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 12, 2002


A shift in power on the School Board will likely pose new challenges for the superintendent.

The results of Tuesday's election are likely to bring a new dynamic to the Pinellas School Board and more questioning of superintendent Howard Hinesley's plans.

For years, Hinesley has consistently enjoyed support from three board members that some observers derisively referred to as "the boys:" School Board Chairman Lee Benjamin, the late Tom Todd and Max Gessner.

Without Todd and Gessner, who lost Tuesday to Mary Russell, Hinesley's support base has eroded. That will make his frequent critics -- Linda Lerner and Jane Gallucci -- sound even louder, particularly with Russell also likely to be a critic.

The shift in the board "has profound implications for the operation of the school district," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. "The superintendent and the choice plan could all of a sudden find themselves on the losing end of a 5-2 vote."

"I think it's going to be a new day on the School Board," said County Commissioner Susan Latvala, a former School Board member who frequently took on Hinesley. "Those women are going to do the right thing for education. It won't be a good old boys club anymore."

Chairman Lee Benjamin, however, disagreed that the men on the board "blindly" support Hinesley.

"Just because you're supportive or you vote for the recommendations, it appears you're just following blindly," Benjamin said. "And that's not the case."

Hinesley was at a meeting and couldn't be reached Wednesday.

The new board will take shape as the district embarks on the most dramatic changes since court-ordered busing was implemented in 1971. A major shift in the choice plan, slated to arrive at schools next fall, seems unlikely. But the new board will decide how the transportation system will work and have a hand in other key details.

Russell, for example, wants more information available on the Internet. She also wants the plan communicated more simply to parents and money to be made available for schools that few parents choose.

Board member Linda Lerner has characterized Russell as an "activist," one who challenged Hinesley earlier this summer to forgo a 5 percent raise.

On a remade board, Lerner said, "my effectiveness may change."

Tuesday's election ensured that two new members will join the board in November: Russell, and the winner of a runoff between Tiffany Todd and Mary Brown, who are seeking to fill the seat once held by Todd's father. Meanwhile Tuesday, the incumbent Lerner beat three challengers, and Nancy Bostock won re-election over Moses Holmes.

Political observers had a hard time making sense of the results.

Was it gender? Women beat men in all races, and the new board will have six women and one man.

Was it race? Two black candidates, Holmes and Janice Starling, who was appointed in July by Gov. Jeb Bush to finish Tom Todd's term, lost. But Brown, who also is trying to become the first African-American elected to the School Board, made it to a runoff.

Were the incumbents doomed? Two won, and two lost.

On the issue of gender, women have a slight advantage in School Board races because they are perceived as knowing a lot about schools, children and parenting, said Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida who has studied school board races and written about how minorities get elected.

Latvala said she thinks more people think of school board service as "a mommy thing." But Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, said he's never heard of that, and that in recent years his membership has been about 51 percent men and 49 percent women.

Tuesday's results also raised questions about the role of race. Gessner lost to Russell, a white woman. But Bostock, whose policy views are strikingly close to Gessner's, beat Holmes, who is black.

"I hate to think that" race played a factor, said Mary Repper, a political consultant who worked for Holmes. Pinellas residents should be ready for a black School Board member, she said. "Whether they are willing to do it remains to be seen."

Starling and her supporters thought Pinellas was ready. But she came in third Tuesday.

Some observers said more money and help from high places could have changed that.

She raised about $7,100, an "absolutely reprehensible" amount, considering she was the governor's appointee, said Repper, a friend of Brown, who finished slightly ahead of Starling.

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