Linda Lerner, one of Florida's longest-serving school board members, announced Thursday that she will not seek re-election for her Pinellas County School Board seat this August.
The 74-year-old Lerner was elected to the board in 1990 and has served six terms.
"It's been a tough decision but I just know that this is the time to give someone else the wonderful opportunity and responsibility to work for our students," she told the Tampa Bay Times. "It's really the best time."
Before she broke the news to board members in an email, Lerner first confided in school superintendent Mike Grego and board member Terry Krassner.
"She's definitely been one of the strongest advocates for children and educators as far back as I can remember," Krassner said. "She's the most thorough in her research and preparation for any and all meetings. I'm going to really miss her voice on the board."
Lerner titled her email to board members, "My Difficult Decision."
"I am leaving the board at a time of strong district leadership and collaboration with our business and community partners," she wrote. "I am very proud of Dr. Grego, the board and all our dedicated educators."
She made it clear that she wasn't retiring completely; she plans to work with the Pinellas Education Foundation's career education board and volunteer in local schools.
"I was very active before School Board and I will continue it," she said. "I'm not worried about being busy."
Lerner first ran for the board in 1990 after she heard it was legal to paddle students. She organized a successful coalition against corporal punishment and was inspired to launch her campaign.
"Initially there were a lot of 6-1 votes and I was the one, but that's changed," she said. "Sometimes that one vote is the thing that needs to be heard."
An early champion of LGBT rights, Lerner said she was proud to be the first board member to use the term "gay" in a School Board meeting. She also voted against accepting state funds for a Boy Scout-inspired curriculum, which at the time discriminated against gay leaders and scouts, and won over board members who eventually voted with her.
Last year, the Boy Scouts of America decided to lift its ban on openly gay Scouts and accept members based on the gender they list. That's why Lerner said she donated to the organization last year.
She said she has a few regrets after three decades in office. Among them: voting for former superintendent Clayton Wilcox in 2004 and opposing interviewing Miami-Dade school superintendent Alberto Carvalho for a second time when he was up for the Pinellas job in 2008. She said she later saw Carvalho at a conference and apologized to him.
Asked about the School Board's decision to resegregate the district, which Lerner voted in favor of in 2007, she said: "More resources should've been put in those schools sooner. It should've been something the board should've been more cognizant of, including myself."
Overall, she said, "It's been a good run."
Matthew Stewart, who lost in the 2016 runoff election against current District 1 At-Large School Board member Joanne Lentino, said Thursday that he filed to run for Lerner's District 6 seat. Her district includes Seminole and the beaches and stretches across Pinellas Park to Feather Sound and Gandy.
Stewart, who was born and raised in Pinellas, was in grade school when Lerner was elected to the board.
"I came up basically in all her time being on the board," he said. "I think it's an opportunity, (and) certainly in the time Linda's been on the board, good things have happened in our schools and there's certainly problematic areas we could contribute on."
Lerner called Stewart a "wonderful candidate" and said she would contribute to his campaign: "I wish Matt a lot of luck."
Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.