School Board interest aplenty
Though the next couple of years will be tough, four incumbents aren't backing down and 12 others are ready for the challenge.
By THOMAS C. TOBIN and DONNA WINCHESTER
Published July 24, 2006
More than once during the next two years, the seven members of the Pinellas School Board will play with fire.
They are likely to tweak the choice plan, thereby tampering with the sensitive topic of where kids go to school. They will decide how hard the district should work to keep schools racially integrated.
Then, sometime before November 2008, they will address whether to renew the special property tax that props up teacher salaries.
If voters don't extend the tax, the board would have to cut teacher salaries or slash the budget.
While those issues are enough to test any school board, other topics are crying for attention as well.
But the heavy press of business has not deterred four members of the board - Nancy Bostock, Mary Brown, Linda Lerner and Mary Russell - from trying to keep their jobs in the Sept. 5 election. Nor has it scared off 12 challengers who think they can do better.
With the deaths of two students in bus-related accidents, the hiring of a new superintendent and chronic problems getting along, the seven-member board has attracted plenty of attention in recent years. The result has heightened public interest in their performance.
When 16 candidates qualified by the Friday deadline, the field became as crowded as any School Board race in the past 24 years.
For those left standing after the election, the reward is a part-time job with full-time hours, constant calls from parents, teachers and taxpayers, a withering spotlight, and an annual salary of about $35,000.
Other issues include mounting concern over student behavior, stagnant enrollment, the achievement gap between white and black students, low teacher morale, soaring school bus costs, the performance of superintendent Clayton Wilcox, and more pressure for better test scores.
With the field in flux through Friday, a brief, six-week campaign now begins in earnest. Following are snapshots of each race.
In what could be called the main event of the campaign, School Board members Bostock and Russell face each other, along with Chris Hardman, a Countryside High School teacher and coach. The race for the District 2 seat is countywide.
Because of a voter-approved change in School Board districts, Russell, 35, had the option to compete in District 3 and in District 6, in which Lerner is running. But she said her decision allows a "fresh face" to come out of District 3 while offering the prospect of unseating Bostock, 37, with whom she has tangled on many issues.
"I thought it was time the School Board changed," said Russell, who often votes in the minority.
Hardman, 53, said the inability of Bostock and Russell to work together shows what's wrong with the board. He compared the district, with its $1.3-billion budget, to a big corporation with no business plan. He questioned why Pinellas is not one of the nation's elite school systems.
Like Hardman, Bostock and Russell are teachers by trade. But the two could not differ more on one of the biggest topics of the day - school accountability.
Bostock said there is "real power" in setting academic standards, measuring how students perform against them and acting on the results.
Russell said an overemphasis on testing by the state and district impedes real teaching and focuses on a small part of a child's education.
Both agreed that the ability of the new board to perform as a team will determine how well it can work through its daunting agenda.
They also agreed that the board has yet to seriously discuss the future of the choice plan after 2007, when - for the first time in 35 years - the district will not be required to use race when assigning students to schools.
The five candidates in this countywide race point to several issues: teacher morale, student discipline and what schools will look like when their race ratios disappear.
Marti Folwell, 70, a substitute teacher, said educators are frustrated by too much paperwork and too little praise. New teachers need mentors, and experienced teachers need continued training, she said.
Lakewood High School social studies teacher Sean O'Flannery, 38, said low morale and a "revolving door of principals" is responsible for what he sees as the district's inability to retain teachers.
Peggy O'Shea, 56, a professional mediator and political consultant, said inadequate salaries contribute to low teacher morale. She also blamed an abundance of students who misbehave, stealing teaching time.
Former Pinellas school administrator Lewis Williams, 63, also said he's concerned about discipline.
"I've had reports of situations where some kids are actually afraid to go to school," he said.
"We have to enforce discipline in the classroom so children have a safe environment," said Anne Scofield, 51, a Pinellas administrative employee. "I think the district may be moving in that direction, but there's a lot more that can be done."
All five candidates have an eye on how the district assigns children to schools under the choice plan.
O'Shea, Scofield and Williams agreed that maintaining racially integrated schools is important.
O'Flannery said he sees no problem with a school being all black or all white "if that's the makeup of your population." Folwell said she needs to study the issue more and is interested in the work of a task force studying the future of choice.
Lerner, the School Board's longest-serving member, faces challenges from Jack Killingsworth, 71, a Largo electronics design engineer, and Carl Neumann, 60, a Seminole Realtor who ran twice for state representative in the 1990s.
Lerner, 63, called the state's school accountability system "capricious" and "punitive" because of its focus on "a single test." A better system, she said, would focus more on how individual students progress each year.
Killingsworth said he supports the intent of state accountability, but he wants to reduce testing in schools. He also said his experience in research and development qualifies him to analyze test data and spot problems.
Neumann, a late entrant into the mid county race, said he is still developing his platform. He said he supports the A-plus plan and wants to take a state standardized test to see how difficult it is.
He criticized Lerner and other board members for meddling in details that he said are best left to the superintendent. Their interference hurts morale, he said.
Lerner identified morale as a top issue, saying the board should work with employees to improve it.
One cause of low morale is accountability that rewards some schools and penalizes others, Killingsworth said.
"That part should be eliminated."
One issue sure to become a focal point in this five-person, south county race is the achievement gap.
"The gap didn't happen overnight, and it's going to take time for it to close," said incumbent Mary Brown, 70. "I want benchmarks set so we can evaluate each year how we're closing it."
Jennifer S. Crockett, 33, a legal assistant, said if the district did a better job of providing services to all schools, the gap could be reduced districtwide.
Retired Pinellas principal Ray Tampa, 54, said the gap and the dropout rate deserve serious attention. He said he plans to campaign as a "focused listener."
Standardized testing is another issue.
Minetha L. Morris, 30, a former elementary school teacher, said accountability mandates add to teachers' workload and erode morale.
Sheldon A. Schwartz, 69, a retired executive with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said conflicting state and federal mandates shift the focus from "the eyeball-to-eyeball student-teacher relationship."
Like nearly all of the board candidates, those in District 7 said racial diversity in schools should be a high priority. But they acknowledged that that's difficult when most parents lean toward their neighborhood schools.
Some said the key will be ensuring that all students receive the same resources. But Brown predicted that that won't happen if black and white students go to different schools.
"I don't think our society has come far enough to be separate but equal," she said.
[Last modified July 24, 2006, 05:13:51]
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