Wilcox apologizes for misstep into political fray

Published September 13, 2006

LARGO - Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox apologized Tuesday for lending his support to a School Board candidate at a recent public appearance.

"I really violated the spirit of my agreement with the board to not have the superintendent be involved in politics," Wilcox announced toward the end of Tuesday's School Board meeting.

"In retrospect, after a lot of reflection," he said, "it was not the right thing for me to have done - to in essence sponsor or support an individual candidate."

At a public forum Aug. 30, Wilcox told about 50 people that he supported School Board member Mary Brown in the Sept. 5 primary election. The forum was sponsored by the African American Voters Research Education Committee, known as AAVREC.

The superintendent framed his remarks in a larger context, saying he feared members of the black community would split their vote and allow a white candidate to be elected to the School Board.

Brown, the board's only black member, is running for re-election in the south county District 7 race. She finished first with 48 percent of the vote and will face the second-place finisher, Jennifer S. Crockett, in the Nov. 7 general election.

Crockett, who got 22 percent of the vote, is white.

At the time of Wilcox's remarks, Brown was competing against four other candidates, two of them black.

Wilcox said he was making a plea for diversity on the board as the district tackles the achievement gap between black and white students and faces a big decision in the next year on the future of racial desegregation.

But the remarks did not go over well with some people. Ray Tampa, one of the black candidates, said he found them inappropriate.

Sheldon Schwartz, one of the white candidates, wrote Wilcox a stinging e-mail that said in part: "Race alone neither qualifies nor disqualifies a candidate. I was offended on many levels because you decided to openly discriminate against each of the non-black candidates because of achievement gap and racial desegregation issues."

Wilcox responded to Schwartz with an e-mail saying, "Mr. Schwartz, I agree with you. I made a mistake and I will not repeat it."

According to district policies, School Board employees are prohibited from engaging in political activities on school property during duty hours. They also may not use the "time, facilities or personnel of the school system" to engage in political activity.

In addition, they must make clear that their political statements represent their views only and not the school system's.

Wilcox did not make his remarks on school property and made clear he was speaking for himself. He stopped short of endorsing Brown.

But he was appearing as superintendent. His remarks came as he spoke to the group about school district issues.

"As the superintendent of the school system, most people expect me to stay above the fray in politics," he told board members. "And my commitment to you is that, while I will vote, you will not hear me publicly say anything about the election for School Board and quite honestly, really, about any race."

The only board member to respond to his statement was Janet Clark, who noted the district's policies on political activity and urged board members to read them again.