The unexpected death of Pinellas County School Board member Lew Williams leaves a critical vacancy in the political district that includes the county's most struggling schools.
On Monday, there was already speculation — and concern — about who would replace Williams, the only African-American on the board. He died Saturday at age 68 after undergoing heart surgery earlier in the week.
Gov. Rick Scott's office said he will appoint a replacement. There is no timetable for him to do that, but a Scott spokesperson said Monday that people can start applying now. During next year's regular election cycle, voters will then decide who will fill out the remainder of the term, which ends in 2014.
Pinellas School Board member Janet Clark said Williams' nonpartisan District 7 seat is particularly sensitive, and she hopes the governor is thoughtful about whom he picks.
Williams replaced Mary Brown, who was the first black person to be elected to the board.
"To not have an African-American on the board is not a good idea," Clark said. The community should "have faith that the board is representative of them."
The seat encompasses the southernmost part of Pinellas County, where a majority of the students in 33 schools come from low-income homes and where four high schools are under state oversight due to poor student achievement. Black students make up 19 percent of the district's student population.
"I would hope that Rick Scott has the political savvy to be advised of all these nuances," Clark continued. But "I don't know that he's aware of all these things."
Williams, who was elected to the seat last year, brought a wealth of knowledge to the job, having risen through the school district ranks over 35 years, from teacher to principal to area superintendent before retiring in 2005 and opening a preschool.
"There's not another Lew around," said longtime School Board member Linda Lerner. "He had such a depth of experience and such wisdom."
But Lerner and board member Terry Krassner both echoed Clark's concerns, saying they feel it's important the person be a strong representative of the area's black community.
The rest of the board is composed of white women.
"Sometimes you want the group to reflect the culture and the community that we live in," Krassner said. "We want everyone in our community and district to see" that the board represents everyone.
"What we're replacing (in Lew Williams) is somebody who went in and didn't need to be trained and be shown where the bathroom is," said Watson Haynes, a St. Petersburg College administrator who heads a group that advocates for black students. "We can't afford to have the School Board be a training arena for somebody."
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Already Monday, the names of possible replacements were circulating.
They included former St. Petersburg NAACP president Ray Tampa, former St. Petersburg police Chief Goliath Davis, former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, dentist Mendee Ligon, as well as former District 7 candidates Keisha Bell, Jennifer Crockett and Jim Jackson.
Additionally, Tampa said he received a forwarded email sent out by a tea party activist who stated that "a solid conservative is needed for this position."
Of those who were reached Monday, Tampa said he was interested, but won't jockey for the seat himself. Jackson and Ligon said they would apply. Davis said he's been asked, but hasn't decided. And Crockett said no one reached out to her.
The question, then, becomes whether any of those already interested in the seat will fit the profile of someone Scott would likely endorse.
"I don't know whose ear he has, or who has his ear," Haynes said of Scott. "I don't know how familiar he is or how aware he is of the magnitude of black student achievement (issues) in Pinellas."
Haynes said he thinks Davis would be a great fit. But Haynes also said whoever the appointee is should not be somebody who needs "OJT," or on-the-job training.
With well-publicized achievement gaps between black and white students in Pinellas and pending legal settlements stemming from a long-running desegregation case, he said, the job comes with a steep learning curve.
Despite the political conjecture, those who knew and worked with Williams said that they are still mourning his death and that speculation over his replacement only reinforces exactly what the community lost.
"My hope is that Lew's legacy is not going to be disrespected by this appointment," Tampa said.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or [email protected] Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873.