In Pinellas County’s only School Board race without an incumbent, three longtime Pinellas residents — a retired City Council member and coach, a human resources manager and a special education teacher — will duke it out for the District 6 seat.
All three lost bids for office in 2016, and this year they seek to fill a seat left vacant by Linda Lerner, who is stepping down after nearly three decades on the board, in a region that spans parts of Largo, Pinellas Park, Seminole and the south Gulf Beaches.
Their priorities are to strengthen school security, address a lingering achievement gap and tackle excessive testing. On some issues, such as charter schools, the candidates agree, saying that while success stories are possible, charters too often are a drain on public school funding. And on other topics, they spar.
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Early in the race, Matt Stewart, the human resources manager, criticized teacher Lorena Grizzle about her stated home address, calling her "disingenuous." Grizzle owns two homes and had lived outside of District 6 in recent years, but recently moved back to the house inside district lines, where she had lived from 2008 to 2014. Grizzle called the accusation petty, but Stewart said voters would "see it for what it is."
Grizzle, 65, works with autistic students at Dunedin High School and in past years taught special education at the elementary level, largely at Bauder Elementary. She started teaching in 2004 after 16 years in sales for the Florida Lottery. Public office is in her blood, she says. Her mother, Mary Grizzle, was the first Republican woman elected to the state Legislature.
"We’ve had so much change happen in the last 10 years," she said. "And I don’t think teachers have a voice right now."
Before, she said, teacher job evaluations were straightforward and merit-based. Now they’re needlessly complex and often political, she contends.
Grizzle also bemoans the trend toward bigger classrooms when students in core math and reading classes need more help. She advocates for more co-teaching in needy classrooms, increased skill-sharing among teachers and more early childhood education.
She also said she would push to review unnecessary testing. She’d rather see the district create more after-school study centers and boost field trips to local businesses to show students a path for their future.
"I’ve seen kids that don’t turn in work all semester," Grizzle said. "That person doesn’t have any hope."
Stewart, 38, said he would bring the fresh perspective of a young professional whose scope goes beyond the classroom. Of seven current board members, five come from a teaching background, he said, whereas he works in human resources for Hillsborough County government. He also has worked as an adjunct professor in ethics at St. Petersburg College and in the classroom doing conflict resolution with Eckerd Youth Alternatives.
Born and raised in Clearwater, he has deep local roots, and as a foster parent, he said he’s driven to protect public schools.
"If anyone says there is not a war on public education they’re wrong," Stewart said. He wants to hold charter schools accountable and boost recruitment and retention through better pay and a healthier working climate for teachers and support staff.
To address the achievement gap, he advocates for lengthening the school day and enhancing time spent on core subjects. He advocates for strong community and parental engagement, greater early learning opportunities and a broader array of career academies and internships.
"Not every parent knows what to do to be able to support their child at school," he said. "How do we build early learning communities so kids don’t come in behind having to play catch up?"
And he wants to increase transparency by tracking discipline and giving parents a clearer sense of how their student is doing, as well as the student’s school.
Many know candidate Bill Dudley, 74, as "Coach" after he spent most of his 38-year teaching career as a wrestling, cross country and football coach at Northeast High, his alma mater. Since being term-limited off of the St. Petersburg City Council, he set his sights on the School Board as a way to get back to his roots in education.
"I’ve always been an educator," he said. "It’s what I do."
He boasts a good rapport with county and state leaders, he said. He sat down with Police Chief Tony Holloway to talk through school security enhancements in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High and left satisfied that "we’re doing the right thing."
He applauded the district’s direction on addressing the achievement gap, but said a greater focus on accountability is needed — ideally through an attendance policy, such as at fundamental schools.
"Kids are missing 66 days of school, taking a virtual class for a couple of days and getting credit. Are you kidding me?" Dudley said. "I can’t teach you if you’re not there."
He also said the district needs to push vocational and technical training more strongly and reduce costly program turnover.
"In seven years the high schools had six math programs implemented," he said. "That is a colossal waste."
Pinellas voters will have their say in the Aug. 28 primary election. If no candidate takes more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will head to a runoff.
So far, Stewart has the most money in his campaign coffers, with about $10,000, of which he has spent $1,860. Grizzle has spent nearly all of her $4,000 in contributions, and Dudley has spent $1,766 of his $3,000.
The School Board position paid $44,163 last year. Terms last four years.
Contact Claire McNeill at (727) 893-8321 or [email protected]