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Election 2004

Pinellas County School Board: Voters throw out incumbent

Janet R. Clark defeats longtime School Board member Lee Benjamin. Carol Cook will complete the all-female board.

By MONIQUE FIELDS
Published September 1, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - Newcomer Janet R. Clark scored a major upset Tuesday, ousting longtime Pinellas County School Board member Lee Benjamin.

Clark, a teacher who said Benjamin was out of touch with the classroom, took the lead soon after the polls closed and never gave it up.

Benjamin, a four-term incumbent, lost the countywide race despite raising five times as much money as his challenger.

"I think the message I was trying to get across must be something people agree with," said Clark, 50. "We need to focus on the classroom."

Benjamin, 77, said he was disappointed with the results.

"I have had 14 good years on the board, and being an old coach, I can accept winning and losing," said Benjamin, who lost by more than 10,000 votes. "I hope she will work well with the School Board and the superintendent and do what's best for students."

Incumbent Carol Cook, meanwhile, handily defeated opponent Dave Baylor in the first single-member race for the District 5 seat. Cook and Clark will take their seats in November, completing an all-female School Board.

At campaign appearances recently, Benjamin spoke briefly about gender and its impact on the School Board, usually in his closing remarks. At one candidate forum held by the Pinellas County Council PTA, he told the audience: "We need an experienced, proven man on the board in the presence of six women."

He emphasized the word "man."

Clark showed her disapproval with a facial expression but didn't challenge Benjamin. Two days later, in a post to a Web site that provides a forum to teachers, she expressed irritation at the remarks.

The change on the board comes at a crucial time. The school district recently hired a new superintendent, the first change in district management since retiring superintendent Howard Hinesley took the helm 14 years ago.

And in 2007, the district will face a major crossroads with the end of "controlled choice," the pupil assignment plan that took the place of court-ordered busing.

Cook, 52, said she was delighted with her performance in the polls.

"I'm pleased to be able to serve for another four years, and I'm looking forward to working with the superintendent," she said.

Baylor, a middle school teacher, vowed to run again. "I'm a little surprised because I shook so many hands in the last few weeks and walked so many streets," he said.

Cook's win marks the first time a School Board member was elected only by voters who live within a single district.

Two years ago, Pinellas residents overwhelmingly approved single-member districts for the School Board. The change is being phased in beginning with Tuesday's election.

Both races featured quiet campaigns, with the candidates rarely at odds on issues. Neither of the challengers said what they would do differently with the district's $1.1-billion budget, or how they might narrow the achievement gap between the county's black and white students.

The four candidates met for only one debate. They instead campaigned by walking the districts, handing out signs and sending direct mail brochures.

Staff writer Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report.

[Last modified September 1, 2004, 01:09:34]


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