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Partisan interference

Voters decided in 1998 to make school board races nonpartisan, but in Pinellas the GOP is dumping tens of thousands of dollars into races.

A Times Editorial
Published July 21, 2006


For the Republican Party to attempt to buy seats on the Pinellas School Board is offensive enough if big money alone were the issue. But its $50,000 down payment this summer comes in school elections that, by state constitutional mandate, are nonpartisan.

So what part of "no party" does Tony DiMatteo not understand?

DiMatteo, the new Pinellas Republican chairman, shows not a hint of remorse for his unprecedented degree of party interference in the elections. Instead, he told a reporter he is planning on "taking back" the School Board, as though he somehow retains ownership rights. In 1998, though, Florida voters took back the boards from political parties. They decided, by a 2-to-1 ratio, to make school board races nonpartisan, in an attempt to remove party labels and partisan politics.

DiMatteo doesn't care. He has opened the party's checkbook to candidates whose most relevant qualification is the degree to which they have worked for Republicans.

Look at Peggy O'Shea, who was handed a $20,000 check for a campaign that had raised little more than $5,000 on its own. O'Shea boasts extensive involvement in school and district activities, but she is also the party's former campaign operations director. One of her opponents is a respected longtime former school administrator who happens to be black and Republican, but Lewis Williams hasn't worked as a party insider. He got nothing.

Make no mistake. The kind of money the party is pouring into the races of three candidates - O'Shea, board member Nancy Bostock and Carl Neuman - could easily tip the scales. Only one of the 17 candidates in four different races this year has topped $10,000 in contributions to date, and that candidate, Bostock, is getting $5,000 from the Republicans. Neuman, who only entered his race two weeks ago, is getting a $10,000 check. The three also will get $15,000 worth of party mailing.

If political parties can dump $50,000 into low-budget races in which all other contributions are limited to $500, then the parties will hijack nonpartisan school elections. That's not what voters intended, and lawmakers shouldn't allow it.

As the Pinellas school campaign progresses over the next six weeks, voters might want to ponder what the Republicans are seeking for their investment and what the three candidates intend to deliver for it. Pinellas is a school district that faces a glaring racial achievement gap, a ponderous student choice assignment plan and declining state aid, and it doesn't need politicos trying to dictate the solutions.

DiMatteo may want to "take back" the board, but it belongs to the people and not the partisans.