Who's donating to Pinellas County School Board candidates?
These are interesting times for the Pinellas County School Board.
The school district is under a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Education to determine whether it systematically discriminates against black students. A state case and federal case against the School Board have already or will be taken back to court for the same grievances. And the fates of three charter schools that enroll more than 800 students hang in the balance until the board definitively votes to close them.
But the hype hasn’t deterred candidates from stepping up to run for the board and aggressively raising money for their campaigns.
So far, 10 candidates have filed to run for three districts on the August primary ballot. District 1, a countywide seat currently occupied by Janet R. Clark -- who has said she will not run for a fourth term -- has four serious contenders. Ken Peluso, the incumbent candidate for district 4 representing north Pinellas areas Tarpon Springs, East Lake and Palm Harbor, faces two challengers for his seat. Carol Cook, incumbent for district 5, a central portion of the county encompassing parts of Clearwater and Largo, also faces two challengers.
Peluso, who was the first to file for the election in August, leads the pack with monetary and in-kind contributions, raising $11,280 and $1,566.13, respectively. Some of his largest contributors are Robert McIntyre, the CEO of Ditek Corp. who sits on the Pinellas Education Foundation board, Elliot Stern, former School Board district 1 candidate also on the foundation's board, and several local Republican clubs. Candidates from other races up for election have also donated big to Peluso, including Pinellas County Commission candidate Mike Mikurak and East Lake Tarpon Special Fire Control District Commission candidate Roger Johnson. He has also spent the most money on his campaign.
Cook, the other incumbent up for reelection to her district 5 seat, seems to be the School Board favorite. She's accepted donations from board members Rene Flowers and Peggy O'Shea, district lobbyist Steve Swartzel and associate superintendent Lori Matway. McIntyre and the education foundation’s board chair Gary Regoli also donated to Cook's campaign along with other big names with deep pockets: Cindy Ehrenzeller, past Pinellas County Council Parent Teacher Association president; Greg Engeman, a senior director for for-profit management companies Community Education Partners/Accelerated Learning Solutions; Donald Eastman, president of Eckerd College and Susan Latvala, former Pinellas County commissioner and School Board member.
Cook, who raised $6,675 in total, also received donations from local Republican organizations, including a political committee for state Sen. Jack Latvala. And Ajax Building Corporation, which was awarded a continuing contract by the School Board in January, gave Cook $500. The limit is $1,000 per election cycle.
Cook said Ajax contributes to several candidates and that she personally knows the individuals who made the contribution.
"They have been very supportive of me personally," said Cook. "I did not think of it as a conflict at all." She added that the School Board is not involved in the selection process of vendors.
In terms of contributions, Cook falls third to Matt Stewart, a deputy director for Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections and adjunct ethics professor at St. Petersburg College vying for district 1's countywide seat. Stewart, who raised $9,040 altogether, received several contributions from individuals related to SPC, as well as Alfred May, chairman of Republic Bank in St. Petersburg and Bette Ra Ivey, president of the College Fund of Pinellas County.
Perhaps Eliseo Santana Jr., a retired communications maintenance supervisor at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, is the most grassroots candidate. Fourth on the list with $6,474, the district 5 candidate has the most individual contributions, many from churchgoers at Universal Unitarians of Clearwater -- board member Clark's church. Santana also received a contribution from former School Board member Gareth Whitehurst.
In fifth place with $5,935, Joanne Lentino, a retired first-grade teacher at Gulfport Elementary, received hundreds of dollars in contributions from democratic organizations. She has also donated $120 back to one of those organizations, the Largo/Mid Pinellas Progressive Political Committee, which gave her $200. Lentino also accepted contributions from former Clearwater mayor and city commissioner Rita Garvey and former St. Pete Beach commissioner Jim Parent.
Next up is Mike Petruccelli, a licensed real estate and insurance broker from Indian Shores running for the district 5 seat. He's taken in $5,300 in contributions, however $5,000 of that money is listed in his name.
Former St. Petersburg City Council member and School Board district 1 candidate Bill Dudley raised $5,000 from five donors. Two are Johnathan Stanton and his company, Lema Construction, which gave $1,000 each. Lema, a city vendor at the time, and Stanton both contributed to Dudley's campaign in 2011. He also accepted $1,000 from Florida Speaks, a political action committee supporting state Rep. Kathleen Peters (R-South Pasadena). Dudley donated $100 to her campaign in 2013.
Eileen Long, a science teacher at Clearwater Intermediate running for the district 4 seat, has raised $1,750 with $1,000 of that funded by a hefty Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association endorsement.
Pinellas Park High online social studies teacher and football coach Alex C. Powers has raised just $50 from himself for his campaign to win the countywide district 1 seat. And in his third race for the School Board, district 4 Chris Hardman has not raised nor spent any money for his campaign.
Anyone interested in running for the School Board has until before noon on June 24 to qualify for the race. Voters must register to vote by August 1.
School Board candidates will appear on the August 30 primary ballot. Early voting will be held from August 20 to 28. If no candidate wins a majority, then the top two candidates advance to a runoff election held Nov. 8.