SEMINOLE — Four races. Nine candidates. Countless issues affecting 103,000 students from pre-K to high school.
Amidst all the complexities of the debate about public education, how does a candidate for Pinellas County School Board stand out, especially when it feels like few people are watching?
On Tuesday night at Osceola High School, all nine attempted to do just that. They took the stage before about 100 onlookers for what is expected to be the only televised debate in the four School Board races.
While incumbents Peggy O'Shea and Linda Lerner leaned on their personal experience on the school board — O'Shea for four years, Lerner for 20 — challengers did their best to paint the races in terms of those who represent the status quo and those who don't.
Brian Hawley, a Pinellas County teacher for 10 years, suggested Lerner, his District 6 opponent, is the perfect choice for those who "see us moving in the right direction."
But, Hawley said, "if you want a fresh start," he's your man.
Greg Hunsinger, a retired middle school science teacher who is challenging O'Shea for the District 3 at-large seat, promised to bring the view of someone who hasn't forgotten the classroom.
In District 7, where three candidates are vying to replace retiring board member Mary Brown in the south Pinellas County seat, retired professor Jim Jackson described himself as beholden to no one, an outsider seeking change. He moved to Pinellas three years ago.
"My loyalty is to you," Jackson said.
Lew Williams, a retired Pinellas County educator who rose from teacher to area superintendent in 35 years, stressed his record of service to the district as an asset: "We don't have time for on-the-job learning."
And Keisha Bell, a self-employed lawyer who works part time overseeing a federal grant for the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg, stressed her interest to engage the community in a way that isn't happening now.
In the open District 2 at-large race, Pinellas County math coach Fonda Huff and retired principal Terry Krassner agreed on several issues, though Krassner stressed her years of educational experience and her lifelong connection to Pinellas County.
Huff, who moved to Florida 11 years ago, promised to bring better representation to those on waiting lists for fundamental schools.
The candidates also were asked a series of "lightning round" questions to which they could only give a yes or no answer.
Several stumbled, trying to explain before being corrected by St. Petersburg Times staff writer Ron Matus, who moderated the debate along with Bay News 9's Al Ruechel.
Lerner found her own way around it.
Question: Do you support paying teachers incentives for working in high-poverty schools?
"Unsure," Lerner answered.
"Yes," Hawley followed.
Do you support giving additional pay to academic coaches in some magnet programs?
"Unsure," Lerner answered.
"Yes," Hawley replied.
The debates were sponsored by the Pinellas County Council of PTAs, Bright House Networks, the Pinellas County Education Foundation, the St. Petersburg Times, the League of Women Voters and PDS-TV 14.