Pinellas school board candidates talk Common Core, engagement
The issues at stake for the candidates to replace Robin Wikle on the Pinellas school board became clearer this week as the three contenders sat down with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board.
Ken Peluso, a recently retired chiropractor from Palm Harbor, and Beverley Billiris, a school teacher and former mayor of Tarpon Springs, have considerably different backgrounds. John Nygren, a math teacher and coach who retired from Pinellas schools in 2011, is also seeking Wikle's seat.
Peluso said his number one issue would be community engagement. As a businessman, he feels the Pinellas school board could do a better job making education seem like a public good that non-parents and organizations should be invested in improving.
"I don't see that cohesiveness with the community," said Peluso, suggesting that school board members spend more time visiting with various organizations and groups.
While Peluso has not worked within the school system, he's served on various local and state education boards and committees. The Common Core standards "is the biggest issue on people's minds," he said.
"It doesn't make sense to me. I don't like the idea of anybody telling the schools, the school district, what to do," said Peluso, who would rather each district develop its own assessment.
Peluso has served on the board at Calvary Christian High School, a private school in Clearwater, and said its autonomy from state mandates allowed it to thrive. However, Peluso expressed a distrust of charter schools, which use public dollars to experiment with longer school days, gender segregated classrooms, and other independent measures.
"The problem I have with charter schools is they're taking the funding...but they're not public schools, on a practical level, and we all know that," he said,
Peluso also said he did not want to see more dollars going to specialty programs like the technology centers opened at Gulf Beaches and Kings Highway elementaries this fall. While these programs have their place, he said, "We can't keep opening programs and schools because the new program isn't for everyone...We need to also focus on everyone else."
On the most struggling schools, clustered in Midtown St. Petersburg, he said, "If anybody had the answer here, they'd be like king of the world...but I do think the outreach into the community is essential."
Billiris, who met with the Times editorial board a day after Peluso, spoke about how dramatically teaching has changed. Before she was mayor, at the start of her teaching career, Billiris said she could move at the pace most appropriate for her students.
Now, she said, teaching to the test is so regimented that she's forbidden from spending an extra day on a chapter that her children are struggling to understand. Sometimes she has to read off a script, she said, and her students pick up on it.
"By the time they get to me in the fifth grade, they're turned off, they're over-tested," Billiris said.
Billiris also had concerns about the Common Core, which she felt was poorly implemented in its first year in the classroom. The new standards have their place because they emphasize high-level thinking, she said, but noted that she sometimes also taught from the FCAT textbook when the new book didn't suit her students.
She decided to run for school board because "I thought maybe instead of sitting in the classroom biting my tongue, I could make (a) difference for these kids."
"Parents are outraged," she continued. "The school system is teaching to tests."
Teaching at Tarpon Springs Elementary, a Title I school, Billiris said she sees firsthand the barriers to parent engagement. Parents with drug or fraud felonies are forbidden from volunteering in the schools, and these parents make up at least 10 percent of the school's families.
"If you want parent involvement, you have to allow them on your bloody campus," she said. Billiris spoke of students whose parents were shot or arrested on the same day they took the FCAT.
Peluso pitched himself as a different voice for a school board mainly comprised of former teachers. Meanwhile, Billiris said her more recent teaching experience would refresh a board that had been out of the classroom for years.
Both candidates expressed confidence in Superintendent Mike Grego, although reservedly; both admitted they had not worked with him firsthand.
Peluso and Billiris differed slightly on how they viewed the relationship between Grego and the school board, which hires and has the power to fire the superintendent; it also votes on policy changes proposed by Grego.
Said Peluso, "It's the superintendent's business and we're simply monitoring his business." He'd like to see the board move quicker to make decisions, holding fewer workshops and commissioning fewer studies.
Billiris said she'd want to see what it's like to work with Grego. "If it's my ball, my bat, I might have some issues."
Nygren had sharp criticisms for Grego and the Pinellas school system. He said Grego has rolled out major initiatives, such as Summer Bridge, too quickly to be effective, and said the district still employs too many administrators.
"I just think that the students in Pinellas County need to be getting a better education than they are," he said.
The District 4 seat will be decided in the August 26 primary election.
Times staff writer Cara Fitzpatrick contributed reporting.