Pinellas County School Board candidates talk Failure Factories, community engagement, teachers and more
Six Pinellas County School Board candidates sat on a stage at the St. Petersburg College Allstate Center on Tuesday night and discussed how they would address the very issue that compelled them to enter the election: five predominantly poor and black elementary schools in south St. Petersburg that are among the worst in the state.
The local branch of the NAACP hosted the first School Board candidate forum of the 2016 election year and quizzed candidates on how they would tackle community engagement, the achievement gap, the district's plan to turn around those five "Failure Factories" and diversity -- issues that surround the south St. Petersburg community's plight to secure quality education for its children.
"We have to look at first the needs of the child," said District 1 at-large candidate Joanne Lentino, elaborating on providing social workers and behavior management for children. "And I think that’s something that has been overlooked for a long time."
Many candidates were critical of the current standing board and promised to put teachers and paraprofessionals at the forefront of the educational experience.
Eileen Long, the sole candidate present Tuesday to represent District 4, criticized the shuffling of teachers in those schools after standardized test results recently released showed gains.
"What about the consistency?" she said. "The relationships that are built with our teachers and our students...We’ve got to give it time."
Carol Cook, a District 5 candidate and the only incumbent on the stage Tuesday night, reiterated how progress is being made in the district, but there is still a lot of work to be done. She defended the board's decisions and proclaimed her faith in the district's new transformation leader, Antonio Burt.
"We’re going into the community and need to continue to do so to find out what can we do, how can we help," she said.
The candidates who participated were District 1 at-large candidates Joanne Lentino, a retired first-grade teacher at Gulfport Elementary, and Matt Stewart, a deputy director for Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections and adjunct ethics professor at St. Petersburg College; District 4 candidate and Clearwater Intermediate science teacher Eileen Long; and District 5 incumbent Carol Cook with challengers Mike Petruccelli, a licensed real estate and insurance broker from Indian Shores, and Eliseo Santana Jr., a retired communications maintenance supervisor at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
Those three candidates who were absent were District 5 incumbent Ken Peluso, who said he had two prior speaking engagements; District 1 candidate and former St. Petersburg City Council member Bill Dudley who had a preplanned fundraiser at 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House; and District 4 candidate and longtime Pinellas teacher Chris Hardman who was taking care of his sick brother.
Attendance at the Allstate Center swelled almost up to its capacity of 300 as the debate went on. Former Florida governor Charlie Crist, armed with bumper stickers heralding his new campaign for the 13th Congressional District, sat in the second row of the audience.
Crist, a St. Petersburg native and product of Pinellas County Schools, complimented Rep. Kathy Castor's efforts on involving the U.S. Department of Education to review the five south St. Petersburg schools. He said he would like to assist her and encourage local teachers to stay in the profession.
"Few issues are as important as education," Crist said.
NAACP branch president Maria Scruggs thanked the candidates for their participation, but gave them a stern warning.
"We’re tired," she said. "We have lost too many children along the way hoping and praying that something will change. We recognize it is important for us as a branch to say we failed...(and we are) asking the board to join in that acknowledgment that we failed."
She added: "I want to make sure that these candidates are aware that the NAACP is here to hold you accountable."