During a recent candidates forum put on by social studies students at Lakewood High, the young moderators went right to one of the big issues that will test the next School Board.
Did the candidates support a schedule change at Pinellas high schools that would save the district millions while forcing teachers to work harder for the same money?
School Board member Janet Clark answered first, saying in part that individual schools should be allowed to decide on the details of their schedules. Challenger Jennifer Crockett questioned that approach, saying a patchwork of schedules would be bad for students who transfer from school to school.
The candidates also were asked what they thought of scheduling high school lunch periods at the end of the day. Crockett came out against it.
"I don't think it's good for students at all," she said. "That's too long to be going without lunch."
Clark said the practice gives students more flexibility and is working well. High school kids are capable of working around the schedule to get enough food, she said. "As you get older, you need to take more responsibility for yourselves."
With that, the Lakewood students revealed some policy differences between the two candidates for the District 1 School Board seat — a new wrinkle in a countywide contest that mostly centers around the candidates' experience, temperament and style.
Clark, running for a second term on the School Board, describes herself as a thoughtful leader who is focused on the classroom. She says she will continue her push for more fiscal accountability and favors a proposal to give individual schools a greater say in how they are run. She says the district can do better than it has so far on middle school reform.
Clark, 54, emphasizes her 11 years of experience as a teacher and her four years on the board, saying she would be a stabilizing force after the Nov. 4 election, when the board will get at least two new members.
Crockett, 36, wants to be the board's third new member. She suggests Clark has participated in the personality conflicts that frequently throw the current board off course — a charge Clark disputes.
Crockett says her "analytical and logical approach to problem solving" would be a welcome change. She also touts the fact that she is not an educator, noting that six of the board's seven current members are former teachers. The board needs a new perspective, she says, pointing to her work as a legal assistant in her father's law practice, her volunteer hours in schools and her involvement in civic groups.
Clark and Crockett finished first and second respectively in the Aug. 26 primary, just 626 votes apart in an election that drew only 12 percent of the county's voters. The two candidates are competing in the general election because no candidate got more than 50 percent of the primary vote.
With the four-person field narrowed to two and turnout expected in the 80 percent range, the candidates have been more pointed as they seek to sharpen their differences.
Crockett suggests that Clark's strong advocacy for teachers comes at the expense of students.
"Coming in from the outside, I'm not representing one specific group or trying to protect certain areas of the district," she said on a recent radio debate with Clark. "We constantly need to keep the student No. 1, and I'm just not seeing that happen in board discussions."
In an interview, she said of Clark: "It's the teacher that comes first for her."
Clark responded: "I don't know where she's getting that from."
At the Lakewood High forum, Clark said she has advocated for students as well as teachers. "Don't let her make you think that we don't care about children," she said of Crockett.
Clark, meanwhile, has been critical of Crockett's experience.
"She doesn't have any experience in business or legal," she said of Crockett. "She worked part time in her dad's law office."
She also referred to Crockett's children — two in elementary school at Jamerson Elementary and one at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School.
"Her view of education, I think, is through her children," Clark said. "I don't think her view is all children."
Clark said her own perspective is broader as a teacher of special-education students and the mother of a student, now in college, who attended gifted and magnet programs.
Crockett responded, saying she worked full time for most of the five years she spent running her father's law practice. She said she did the books, prepared settlement papers, scheduled hearings and processed subpoenas.
She learned enough to know what questions to ask on legal matters, she said. "I know to read the fine print."
Her experience with the system goes beyond her children's schools, she said, adding that she went through Pinellas Schools as a student and has relatives and friends who work there.
The candidates come to the race from markedly different backgrounds.
Clark was born in Honolulu and moved with her family nine times before she was 10. Her father was in the Navy.
She dropped out of high school in South Carolina and worked for years in the restaurant business before deciding to get an education degree and become a teacher. She moved to Pinellas in 2000.
As a board member, she has frequently been a voice for district employees accused of wrongdoing. She became a key swing vote recently as the board selected a new superintendent from Miami-Dade County then chose Julie Janssen for the job when the first candidate declined.
She also voted against the new system of "close-to-home" schools, saying it catered to too many groups.
Crockett's family moved to Pinellas in 1974 when she was a child. She attended public schools and graduated from St. Petersburg High, where she met her husband.
She worked in the law practice of her father, John E. Swisher, from 1993 to 1997 and in 2005-2006. She also is a competitive swim coach.
She says she logged 700 hours in 2007-08 as a volunteer in schools, including those her children attend.
Both candidates say their lives will go on no matter how the election turns out.
Crockett says she will continue to focus on schools, and Clark says she would return to teaching.