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Pinellas School Board challenger Brian Hawley fails to come out swinging

On paper, it looks like a battle royale.

In one corner: Linda Lerner.

After 20 years on the Pinellas County School Board, Lerner, 67, is as incumbent as they get. She knows the history, the policy, the players — and how complicated issues can be. In a year when angry voters want fresh faces and easy answers, she looks vulnerable.

In the other corner: Brian Hawley.

Young. Articulate. Outspoken. The 31-year-old teacher at Largo Middle School struck many as a hard-charging challenger when he boldly filed to run for Lerner's seat.

Then the bell rang — ding dingand Hawley never came out of his corner.

"I just don't know how to campaign that well, or I don't have the time — as you can tell by the turnout," Hawley said last Saturday at a candidate meet-n-greet he held at the Pinellas Park Library. Besides Hawley's mother, wife and 3-week-old son, the event drew two fellow teachers from Largo Middle and community activist Sami Scott.

The District 6 race seemed ripe for an upset.

Besides an anti-incumbent mood, Lerner has had to face perceptions that a once-proud school district has fallen and can't get up. Eight of 16 traditional high schools are D-rated. One is an F. Meanwhile, five straight years of budget cuts have left stakeholders sniping at each other and everyone blasting the board.

Lerner is hard working and diligent. She can be determined and persistent. In her office last week, she brought Pinellas administrators and Florida Holocaust Museum officials together to discuss the possibility of extending a museum civics program into middle schools. Will it fit into the curriculum? she asked. Can it be flexibly implemented?

Lerner's knowledge of the district can be double-edged. When asked her top priorities for a sixth term, Lerner detoured into the need for more specific "accountability measures" in the district's "strategic plan."

She can also skirt the line between sticking to conviction and being tone deaf. Despite what people think, she said, "there are many things going extremely well" in Pinellas schools. The idea that the district rehired too many top administrators this summer has "been blown out of proportion."

At a televised forum Aug. 3, Lerner refused to answer "yes" or "no" to yes-or-no questions involving differential pay for teachers. She made no apologies afterward, saying she won't give simple answers if there aren't any.

"That's my obligation," she said.

With election day looming Aug. 24, Lerner said she's campaigning as hard as ever. She has seen other long-term incumbents lose in shockers — and doesn't plan to join them.

"You don't take it for granted. Ever," she said.

After filing in May, Hawley came off as credible, informed, appropriately aggressive.

Lerner's nice, but her votes don't match her rhetoric, he said. Pinellas is padding its graduation rates and must be honest with itself. The district needs to hold students accountable by strengthening attendance and grading policies.

Hawley showed a maverick streak, too. He's a teachers union representative at Largo Middle, but that didn't stop him from criticizing the union for what he said was poor communications with its members — or for endorsing his opponent.

"If you want a fresh start," I'm your man, he said at the Aug. 3 forum.

To campaign watchers, though, Hawley has become the invisible man. He has attended no other candidate forums. He has raised no money beyond the $2,000 he loaned himself. He has knocked on few doors.

A week after his first child was born, Hawley conceded he knew going into the race that his campaigning would be limited. He said he planned to hand out business cards, put out a few yards signs, contact community newspapers — and not much else.

To some, Hawley's approach to campaigning raises questions about how committed a public servant he'll be. Not so, he said.

"People are dissatisfied with the status quo … and I'm not a career politician," he said. "Just because I don't have the resources and time to campaign doesn't take that away."

At his meet-and-greet, Hawley sat near a case of unopened water bottles. Scott, the activist, peppered him with questions: How many people can canvass for you? Do your fliers have your face on them? Do you have precinct maps?

Hawley listened patiently, said he would try. "You've got youth on your side," Scott told him.

But not time.

Reach Ron Matus at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

>>Fast facts

About the job

School Board members oversee a $1.35 billion budget and a K-12 school system with more than 103,000 students and nearly 14,000 full-time employees. They serve four-year terms and are paid $37,013 a year. District 6 includes Seminole, Pinellas Park, the far northeastern section of St. Petersburg, beach communities from Redington Shores south to St. Pete Beach and Tierra Verde.

Pinellas School Board challenger Brian Hawley fails to come out swinging 08/14/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 14, 2010 12:12am]
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