Pinellas school board candidates show differences

At a campaign event in the School Board's District 2 race, two incumbents and a newcomer combine for an entertaining evening.

Published May 19, 2006

CLEARWATER - This year's pre-eminent race for Pinellas School Board got off to a crisp start Thursday, as three candidates presented strikingly different views of the board's performance and the state of education in Florida.

Tired of subtlety? Sick of nuance? Don't like the candidates agreeing all the time? The countywide campaign for the District 2 seat could be for you.

Over lunch as guests of the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, two big-name incumbents insinuated that the other was part of the School Board's problems, while a newcomer said he's got better ideas than both of them.

Voters must sort through these competing visions by the Sept. 5 election.

"The majority of our school board works extremely well together,'' said board member Nancy Bostock, who is running for a third term. "Most of our school board members, even though we have very different ideas on issues, we treat each other respectfully, we deliberate the issues and we keep the interests of children first.''

Mary Russell - who is not in the majority - is running for her second term.

"We do have a majority of a school board that does work together. They tend to agree on a lot of things,'' she said. "I will tell you, though, the majority of our teachers, the majority of our parents and the majority of our citizens say the Pinellas County school system is not working for them.''

Often at the center of board disputes, Russell said the seven-member panel struggles to debate issues with a civil tone and to find direction.

Bostock responded, "I'm not conflicted, and I don't have any doubts about our purpose or our direction for the Pinellas County School Board.''

Chris Hardman, a Countryside High School math teacher and tennis coach, said it might be time for someone like him on the board. Hardman, a former medical and pharmaceutical salesman who joined the district four years ago, entered the race in April.

"We have a billion-dollar business without a business plan,'' he said of the school district, "and we need to get after leading this process from the school board down. ... We have some turf battles and bickering on the School Board instead of the board being focused on the job at hand.''

Russell and Bostock offered contrasting views on Florida's school accountability program, known as the A-plus plan, which is based on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. She said the emphasis on preparing kids for the reading and math FCAT has stolen emphasis from other subjects and caused other problems.

She portrayed herself as a defender of a public education system that is under siege by reformers.

"We are living in a day and age where public schools are literally fighting for their very existence,'' she said.

Bostock offered an unapologetic defense of the A-plus plan.

"Accountability measures enable us to continually improve our schools,'' she said. "When we clearly define what it is we want our kids to learn, when we define a curriculum to teach those things, when our teachers use their creative genius and great patience to teach these things to our kids and when we measure our results and, finally, when we implement improvements to our system based on those measurements, our kids receive a better education.''

Hardman did not address the accountability issue but did weigh in on a related question from the audience about the district's "pacing calendar.'' The calendar outlines when during the school year teachers should be teaching elements of the state's educational standards.

Many teachers have criticized the calendar, saying it inhibits their craft and sets an unrealistic pace. Administrators say it is necessary to ensure students at all schools are being exposed to subject matter that could be on the FCAT.

Hardman said he saw value in pacing calendars because they get teachers on the same page while also allowing them flexibility to be creative.

Bostock agreed.

"Our best teachers absolutely rise to this challenge,'' she said. "They teach our kids what we need them to know in a creative and motivating way.''

Russell said the curriculum should have "some kind of consistency'' across the county, but that pacing calendars take too much freedom from teachers.

"I operate on the assumption that every one of our teachers in our classrooms are qualified and they're good at what they do,'' she said. If they weren't, she said, "then we shouldn't have them in the classroom.''