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School Board races get GOP aid

The party defends the major donations to its favorites in the officially nonpartisan race, and it is violating no law.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published July 21, 2006


The Pinellas Republican Party suddenly is a huge player in this year's School Board election, an officially nonpartisan affair that is just starting to gain steam.

The party's executive committee has made contributions totaling $35,000 to three candidates with strong Republican ties: School Board member Nancy Bostock, a GOP stalwart since the early 1990s; Peggy O'Shea, a longtime party worker who ran the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign in Pinellas; and Carl Neumann, a onetime Republican candidate for state representative.

The party will spend an additional $15,000 to promote the three candidates in its own mailing to voters before the Sept. 5 primary.

The total commitment of $50,000 would make a relatively small splash in a state or national campaign. But in a School Board race, it can make a big difference.

The total represents about 40 percent of all the money raised so far by 13 of the 17 candidates still in the race. The qualifying deadline is today. Four of the board's seven seats are up for grabs.

The party's gifts of $20,000 to O'Shea's campaign and $10,000 to Neumann's vault put both candidates in the fundraising lead in their respective races. The money will enable them to reach thousands more voters through direct mail.

Bostock received $5,000, adding to a campaign account that has mushroomed to more than $35,000 since September.

About 130 members of the party's executive committee voted on the endorsements and saw the checks delivered to the candidates during a meeting July 10.

In an interview, party chairman Tony DiMatteo said "taking back the School Board" was one of his goals when he was elected to lead the Pinellas GOP in December 2004.

Four of the board's members are Democrats.

"I think it's more important to get involved in a nonpartisan race because the public doesn't know" the political leanings of candidates, DiMatteo argued. "We want to help the public identify who they are."

He added: "I want my guys to win, and it's my job as chairman to make sure our people have all the tools they need to win."

He said the contributions marked the first time the Pinellas party directly contributed such large amounts to School Board campaigns. In the past, the party has given money to campaigns through individual members.

"The result is the same," said O'Shea, who downplayed the significance of the contributions. "If they had done it (the old) way, I still would have had $20,000."

Under the new way, she said, the party is more open about its involvement.

In 1998, Florida voters approved a change in the state Constitution that made school board races nonpartisan. That means school board candidates may not campaign "based on party affiliation."

But candidates are allowed to tout their experience in party organizations, and nothing in the law prohibits political parties from contributing to nonpartisan school board races.

Though the Constitution was changed, partisan activity continues.

All of the current School Board members except Bostock have at some point been critical of the state's school accountability program, the A+ Plan for Education, begun by Gov. Jeb Bush and fellow Republicans in the Legislature.

In strongly backing Neumann and Bostock, the Pinellas GOP is taking aim at two board members - Linda Lerner and Mary Russell - who have been particularly outspoken critics of the A+ Plan. Both are Democrats.

DiMatteo called them liberal and said the A+ Plan was the right direction for education in Florida.

He said of Bostock: "She's a great School Board member; we want to give her some help."

Said Russell: "I could be naive, but I hope the voters tell them you can't buy elections." Russell won a board seat in 2002 after her opponent, incumbent Max Gessner, outspent her 10-1.

Lerner declined to comment.

Republicans are well aware of the result in Russell's race and that of board member Janet Clark, an underfunded and unknown candidate in 2004 who defeated a well-financed incumbent, Lee Benjamin.

"You have to be able to translate that money into votes," O'Shea said. "Money isn't the total answer. You still have to be a candidate that people want to elect."

Critics argue that large doses of party money can taint a nonpartisan race.

"Any campaign contribution has a payback," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

"What part of the Republican platform did you adopt to get this money? What part of your soul did you sell?"

Bostock argued that she received the money because of positions she already has taken, not as an inducement to vote a certain way in the future.

Supporters of the constitutional change to nonpartisan school boards argued that local education issues should transcend partisan politics. Such issues can be complex and nuanced, often muddying party lines.

One example: Bostock, a strong opponent of tax increases, said in an interview this week that she might be forced in 2008 to place a proposed property tax increase on the ballot for teacher salaries.

Another Republican, board member Jane Gallucci, has blasted the governor's A+ Plan as too rigid in her new role as president of the National School Boards Association.

Bostock, DiMatteo and O'Shea argued that the primary benefit of nonpartisan school board elections is that all voters get a chance to participate in the primary election. The party's money "doesn't change that one bit," Bostock said.

They also noted that other groups such as police, firefighter and teachers unions also try to influence nonpartisan elections with contributions.

But Moore, the teachers union director, said there's a big difference. The union, he said, will not contribute more than $500 to any race.

"The intent was that schools - of all places - need to be above politics," Moore said. "The concern I would have is that this escalates. What's this going to do?"