School Board hopefuls air views

Top topics at Thursday's candidate forum include the achievement gap and teacher morale.

Published August 11, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Questions about black student achievement dominated a forum Thursday night featuring Pinellas School Board candidates. But the participants also had a chance to air their views on single-gender schools, the student dress code, employee morale, racial remarks by teachers and other issues.

"We have got to let students know that not only do we care about them, we expect them to learn," said School Board member Mary Brown, answering a question about how the board can comply with a federal court settlement that details the district's role in providing an equal education to black students.

The district and parents need to send a more positive message to black students, she said.

Brown is running for re-election in District 7, a South Pinellas seat, against Jennifer Crockett, Minetha Morris, Sheldon Schwartz and Ray Tampa.

Morris said she would focus on monitoring whether the district is sending enough resources to schools with high numbers of black students and would push for more diversity training for teachers.

Tampa said the board is a policymaking body and should rely on superintendent Clayton Wilcox to lead the way in helping black students, but also make sure he does so. Tampa added: "The only way the achievement gap can be closed is if we partner with the total community."

Crockett said the district has not complied with the federal court settlement. She said the school system needs to get better at marketing its choice program and its magnet school offerings. She added that student performance would improve if schools were more consistent about discipline.

Schwartz said the choice plan is a good system that needs to be better promoted. He said the district also should work to raise teacher morale and "work to make sure that no child and no parent is left behind."

Among the questions asked of candidates in the at-large District 2 and District 3 races: Do you support single-gender schools?

Board member Mary Russell, who is running in District 2 against Nancy Bostock and Chris Hardman, called such schools "a gimmick" and said it was "a mistake to look at someone on the outside and think that you know what's on the inside."

Bostock said she was a strong supporter of single-gender schools because they "can do wonders" for discipline and student performance. She cited the success of some "elite private schools" as an example. She added, however, that single-gender schools are not for everyone and should be offered as one of many choices for families.

Hardman did not attend the forum, nor did District 3 candidate Sean O'Flannery.

District 3 candidate Peggy O'Shea said she was open to looking at expanding the single-gender idea, which is being tried this year in selected classes at Belcher and Melrose elementary schools.

Candidate Anne Scofield said she was opposed to the idea because it narrows the education experience and boys and girls should be learning how to live and work together.

Marti Folwell said she would not have an opinion until she saw how the idea worked at the two schools.

Lew Williams said he had seen no definitive research on either side of the argument but had no problem with trying it. To laughs in a crowded assembly room at the Enoch Davis Center in St. Petersburg, Williams also quipped: "If I were a student in high school, I'd hate it."

The three candidates running in District 6, a mid county seat, were asked how they would solve the problem of low teacher morale.

Carl Neumann said some members of the current School Board had hurt morale by undercutting the superintendent's authority. They "create unrest by asking questions," he said, and they need to have more "respect for authority."

Said Jack Killingsworth: "I wish I knew how to solve it, but it is real." He added, "A pat on the back is very inexpensive and can lead to good results."

Board member Linda Lerner, who is running for re-election, said the state's focus on standardized testing was a major source of the problem, as was the practice of administrators telling teachers how to do their jobs.

Teachers, she said, "need more authority to make decisions."