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Civic leaders battle for Pinellas School Board seat in District 4

North Pinellas residents will play a unique role in determining the makeup of the next School Board.

Like every other voter in the county, they'll have a choice of candidates in the District 1 and 2 races. But only voters in District 4 will get a chance to put a third member on the board.

Two competing narratives are vying for their attention as the Nov. 4 general election nears.

Ken Peluso, a Palm Harbor chiropractor, is a New Jersey native from a large Italian family. His father inspected historic sites for the federal government, and Peluso frequently accompanied him to Washington. That boyhood experience, he says, instilled "a love for public service" that led him to serve on numerous local boards and finally to run for the School Board.

Peluso, 52, says of his civic involvement: "I have to do it. It's part of me."

Robin Wikle, owner of a Palm Harbor real estate business, says she grew up near Brooksville in a single-wide trailer with no running water, learning to hunt, raise chickens and grow a garden. After moving with her family to Tarpon Springs at age 13, she joined student government at Tarpon Springs High (Class of '81), became homecoming queen, got married after graduation and four years later received a master's degree in special education.

"I don't remember not wanting to be a teacher," says Wikle, 45.

Neither candidate has spent much time on the sidelines. They've volunteered with civic organizations, sat on local boards and led initiatives. The question before voters is which person is better prepared to help lead Pinellas schools through a tumultuous period of declining enrollment, fiscal uncertainty and stalled student performance.

"There's pretty much a vast difference in our experience," says Peluso, noting that he chairs the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County.

The agency has a $51-million budget and distributes public money for early childhood and school readiness services such as the state's prekindergarten program.

Peluso also has served on several boards in Palm Harbor, including the Fire Pension Board and the Community Services Board. His other activities have included leadership roles in the Palm Harbor Chamber of Commerce and involvement in the Rotary Club and the Helen Ellis Hospital Foundation.

He argues that he has far more experience than Wikle in overseeing public policy and funds.

Wikle counters, citing 16 years' experience in the real estate business she owns with her husband and nine years as a classroom assistant and special-education teacher in Pinellas schools.

She also has been involved in numerous parent groups at Tarpon Springs High, sits on the Tarpon Springs parks board and took a leading role in a youth football and cheerleading league.

"I bring a well-roundedness," Wikle says. "Ken has no educational background. I believe I have the right experience for the job."

The two finished neck-and-neck in the Aug. 26 primary, with Wikle getting 154 votes more than Peluso in a four-candidate field. The two are in a runoff because no candidate got more than 50 percent of the vote.

District 4 encompasses Tarpon Springs, Oldsmar, Palm Harbor, Safety Harbor, Dunedin and parts of Clearwater, including Countryside and the north beaches.

Both candidates have raised large sums of money for the race. Peluso has collected $43,852, including $15,000 in loans he made to his campaign. Wikle has loaned her campaign $19,500 and has raised a total of $56,418.

Each has collected about as much as all the money raised in the two other School Board races combined. They also drew significant financial backing from political action committees representing their respective professions — Wikle from the Florida Association of Realtors, and Peluso from chiropractor groups.

The two agree with plans to decentralize the school system by putting more decisions in the hands of principals, parents and teachers. They also agree that Pinellas should devise its own plan rather than copy a much-heralded plan in Okaloosa County.

Both also support efforts to reduce busing costs and improve student achievement.

Wikle says a stronger emphasis on the district's fledgling effort to boost technical education will help boost graduation rates. She says she also favors more student contact with mentors, tutors and guidance counselors.

Peluso says the secret to better student performance is decentralizing the system and focusing on preparing kids before they reach school age.

. FAST FACTS

On the Web

For more information on the Pinellas School Board candidates, including video excerpts of their conversations with Times reporters, go to education.tampabay.com and click on the red apple.

Coming this week

A look at the candidates running for the District 2 seat.

Civic leaders battle for Pinellas School Board seat in District 4 10/27/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 31, 2008 10:09pm]

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