The Pinellas School Board races: Nine candidates, thousands spent, three spots to fill

The panel chided for troubled St. Petersburg schools has three open spots.
Published August 25 2016
Updated August 25 2016

Nine candidates vying for three Pinellas County School Board seats have less than a week to buckle down for the primary election.

Together they've raised close to $150,000. They've traversed the county, appearing at forums from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg, fine-tuning their responses to repeated concerns: the achievement gap between black and nonblack students, parental involvement, teacher morale, magnet schools, and career and technical training.

The District 4 race, with two candidates, will be decided Tuesday. But if no candidate in the other two races receives a majority of the votes, the top two in each race will head for a runoff election on Nov. 4.

Here's a look at the races:

FIND OUT MORE: See our 'Know Your Candidates' section for more detailed information on each candidate

District 1

If you think of the School Board as a sports team, a roster spot is opening up soon and someone needs to fill it.

Six of the seven board members are women. All but one are retired. Four are former educators. None has school-aged children.

One of the board's veteran players, District 1 at-large incumbent Janet Clark, is calling it quits after three terms. Of the four candidates to replace her, three are educators who make the case that they are different from their opponents. What kind of player will best help the team? It's up to voters to make the call.

Bill Dudley, a former St. Petersburg City Council member and 37-year Northeast High teacher and coach, made it clear at a recent candidate forum that only he and opponent Joanne Lentino are certified teachers.

It's a key point, said Dudley, 72. "It's hard to gain experience through textbooks without the reality of actually putting that stuff into practice."

Lentino, 67, has taken that sentiment a step further by pointing out she most recently taught in the classroom, retiring from her first-grade teaching post at Gulfport Elementary in 2013. Further, she says the School Board leaves no room for other commitments.

"There will be no part-time job for me," Lentino said at a forum in Seminole. "There will be no full-time job that I'm holding on to because this dedicates my life to helping children, teachers and our community of families."

Dudley and Lentino were referring to opponent Matt Stewart, who does not hold a teaching certificate but did work at South Ward and Sanderlin elementaries in a program called Hi-Five Pinellas. He also taught one year at Clearwater Central Catholic High.

Stewart, 36, is a St. Petersburg College adjunct professor with a doctoral degree in curriculum and is a foster parent to a 13-year-old son. He works full-time as a deputy director at the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office, a job he says is flexible to the School Board's schedule.

"I think there's something to be said for still being a young working professional in our community," Stewart said.

The fourth candidate, Robert J. Beal, 46, is a Marine veteran, a St. Petersburg College student and a father advocating for his special-needs daughter. A no-show at several candidate forums, his opponents say they have not seen him since early August.

Beal's only campaign contributions are $2,400 he loaned to himself.

District 4

A veteran educator is challenging Ken Peluso for his seat on the Pinellas County School Board.

Eileen Long, 55, has been teaching for more than 30 years, with all but two years in Pinellas County schools. Peluso, 59, was elected two years ago. He is a retired chiropractor and the former chairman of the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas.

The District 4 seat is open only to voters in that district, which covers much of northern Pinellas, including Tarpon Springs, Palm Harbor, Safety Harbor and parts of Clearwater. On many issues, the two offer voters a clear choice.

Peluso is satisfied with the performance of school superintendent Mike Grego. He praised Grego for fiscal responsibility and for tying district action to a strategic plan. Long is critical of Grego's four-year tenure. She said that Grego has moved teachers out of low-performing schools before the release of test results, which showed progress. She said morale is low, but Grego changed employee surveys in ways that made it harder to give feedback.

"I'm frustrated with the School Board, superintendent and his cabinet feeling that it's their school system," she said.

Peluso called her assessment "off-base." He said he gets frequent compliments about the district administration.

The two also disagree about reform efforts being made in five struggling elementary schools in south St. Petersburg. Peluso said he is pleased with recent changes, including a longer school day, an increase in teacher pay incentives and training, and increased staff.

Long said district officials haven't done a good job sharing their plan with the community. She said the schools would benefit from on-site day care for families of students who attend the school.

Peluso has the endorsement of the Pinellas Realtor Organization. The Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Long.

Long, who teaches at Clearwater Intermediate, said she has an advantage as a teacher and parent with two children in the schools. Peluso counters that he has a long track record of public service and budgetary experience, serving as a Palm Harbor fire commissioner, past president of the Palm Harbor Chamber of Commerce, and past chairman of the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency, which is a taxing agency that manages library and recreation funding.

District 5

This is the year of the political outsider (see: Trump, Donald J.). Does that translate to the School Board's District 5 race?

Four-term incumbent Carol Cook's deep roots in local and educational circles extend beyond her Clearwater- and Largo-based district. Cook, 64, is the legislative committee chair of the Florida School Boards Association, where she is also a paid consultant and was recently recognized for more than 25 years of service at the Parent Teacher Association's national convention.

Her two opponents come from outside education.

Mike Petruccelli, a 70-year-old insurance agent and real estate broker, won his first election by one vote in 2014 to the Indian Shores Town Council. Eliseo Santana, a 58-year-old retired communication maintenance supervisor, is a political rookie.

Both men say they were compelled to run because of their dismay with the status quo, which they say Cook has perpetuated.

Petruccelli's platform: common sense and honesty will get the job done.

"If you liked what happened in the past four years, then stay home," Petruccelli said. "But if you are concerned about what's happened in the past four years, go to the polls, drag a neighbor on Aug. 30 so we can have some change."

Santana takes a different approach. He knows what it's like to be a struggling student like those highlighted in the Tampa Bay Times' "Failure Factories" series, which documented how the School Board let five once-average elementary schools deteriorate into some of the worst schools in the state.

"When I graduated from high school with a third-grade reading and writing ability, I know what these children feel like. I know what they're going through," Santana said. "Over the last 16 years the incumbent has been making decisions over our children's future."

Cook voted to end busing in favor of neighborhood schools in 2007 and said the focus on those five schools "waned a little bit."

"We did get sidetracked," she said. "Our focus is there now. I know the history. I won't repeat some of the same mistakes."

She added: "Sometimes you just need the history not to repeat the same mistakes, but I also have gained over the years a wider understanding of other things that are happening in the state, which also impacts my input."

Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright. Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at [email protected] Follow @Fitz_ly.