Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Education

Lew Williams' memory ever-present in Pinellas School Board race

ST. PETERSBURG — Officially, five people are seeking the District 7 Pinellas County School Board seat on Tuesday.

But there's a sixth whose name is inseparable from the race.

Lew Williams was just a year into his job as a board member when he died unexpectedly in December. After three decades of working in Pinellas County schools, however, Williams' absence left a gaping hole of representation for the district's southern tip, home to the majority of the county's most struggling schools.

Now, most candidates running to finish out Williams' last two years on the board say they have some connection to the 68-year-old educator, a soft-spoken man who rose from poverty and saw schooling as his saving grace, eventually earning a master's degree and working toward a doctorate.

Still, as much as some of the candidates appear willing to align themselves with Williams' personality, work ethic or values, it's hard to ignore how they differ.

• • •

When Glenton Gilzean, Jr., heard in January that he'd probably be Gov. Rick Scott's pick to fill the position temporarily, he called Williams' widow.

Once appointed, Gilzean said he met several times with Arthurene Williams to talk about her husband's work — something he felt was necessary due partly to the fact that he had just moved into the community from Tampa.

"It was important to me because of the honor and reputation he had in the county," said Gilzean, 30, who remembered meeting Williams once a few months before he died. "It was important that I sit and hear some of his visions for the seat."

Rene Flowers, who managed Williams' 2010 campaign for the District 7 seat, was the first to file papers to replace him. The former St. Petersburg City Council member said that when she decided to run for Williams' seat, it was easy to craft a platform.

"I said, 'I want to finish the things Lew started,' " Flowers, 47, said, describing a conversation with her own campaign organizers. "There wasn't a back and forth about it."

She even has taken to using Williams' campaign slogan: "Keep the main thing the main thing."

But critics like former St. Petersburg NAACP president Ray Tampa say Flowers has only recently acquired an interest in public schools.

"I don't ever remember Rene Flowers being involved in community issues involving schools," said Tampa, also a former principal, who is backing Gilzean.

• • •

Since his death, school district leaders are honoring Williams' memory with a project aimed at improving quality preschool education, especially for economically disadvantaged kids. It was an issue especially of interest to Williams, who owned a preschool with his wife.

Early childhood education has been a regular discussion point at District 7 campaign events.

Candidate Keisha Bell, 38, ran against Williams in 2010. After the attorney lost in the three-way primary, she befriended Williams, endorsed him and established what she describes as a "mentee" relationship with Williams. She said their conversations about negative images of students from south Pinellas County solidified her interest in surrounding students with more positive messages about themselves, should she be elected.

"He told me I reminded him a lot of himself," Bell said.

Candidate Corey Givens Jr., a 20-year-old student at the University of South Florida, also says he had a couple of one-on-one mentee-like conversations with Williams. Givens said he was involved in the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP when he came in contact with the school leader.

"As a young guy meeting Mr. Williams for the first time, it was like he was just like one of us," Givens said. "He was relatable and I think that's what we should have from our elected officials."

Givens, a young African-American man who has shown leadership potential, in some ways represents the demographic School Board candidates say they hope to reach — and one that Williams was deeply concerned about.

But Givens' campaign suffered when news broke that he'd falsely claimed to have college degrees.

Tampa, the former NAACP president, said he also questions Givens' story that he met Williams through the group, since he doesn't ever remember meeting Givens. Asked about Tampa's doubt, Givens maintained he did interact with Williams through the organization.

The only candidate who said her campaign hasn't been in some way touched by Williams' influence is Cassandra Jackson, a 52-year-old teachers' aide at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle. Jackson said that the few times she met Williams, he struck her as a quiet gentleman, but she said she is running on her own experience and ideas.

"I did hear he was responsible for improving minority hiring," Jackson said.

In her six years with the district, Jackson's performance reviews have all been good — with one exception. Her 2010 review stated she had "outstanding complaints" over her relationships with others, "inappropriate interactions" with students and "needs to take initiative to work with students." Jackson disputes the review's findings and supplied the Tampa Bay Times with multiple letters from other faculty members saying she was good with kids and employees.

While the other candidates head into Election Day feeling some connection to Williams, one person intimately involved in the race hasn't publicly endorsed anyone.

Arthurene Williams has stayed quiet on the subject of her husband's successor. When the Times called to ask her about her thoughts, she politely declined to talk right then and never called back.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8707.

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