ST. PETERSBURG — Linda Lerner is here, at Maximo Elementary, one of the lowest-achieving schools in the state. She is going from classroom to classroom. She is looking at penguins cut out of paper. She is looking at a boy wrapped in a blanket. She is watching little girls dance on a rug, and she is starting to dance herself. She is taking down notes as a little boy tells her what he found in a bird feeder. "Thank you," she is saying. "Thank you for letting me know that."
It is a Wednesday, late morning, and when the woman who spends her days visiting schools leaves she will go home and eat a cheese sandwich. She will drink lemonade, which she will dilute with water, explaining that "it's just too strong for me."
And then she will plan her attack.
Lerner, 71, is the longest-serving School Board member in the history of Pinellas County schools. She was elected 24 years ago. And to the surprise of some, she is running for four more.
But Lerner is facing her most serious challenger in quite some time: Maureen Ahern, a former journalist and the wife of a Republican state legislator.
A seat on the School Board is, in the grand scheme of political office, a low-level, low-paying post on the way to a career as a county commissioner or state representative. Why Lerner has stood still on a stepping stone has never seemed more curious to voters than now, when she might lose that stone.
"You know, Calvin Hunsinger served almost as long as me, six terms," she points out cheerfully over the phone one day. "Of course, he died in the middle of his (last) term, so I think I've served longer."
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Whether you vote for the incumbent or her challenger may come down to many things, but in the Lerner-Ahern race, there are two main currents: politics, and performance.
Pinellas School Board races have been nonpartisan since 2000, but the absence of R's and D's on a ballot is just that. Lerner, a Democrat, is sending out letters to potential donors: "I have a serious opponent, Maureen Ahern, who is the wife of State Representative Larry Ahern. She is active in the South Pinellas 912 Patriots, a local tea party group."
The Republican Party of Pinellas County emailed out an invitation to Ahern's May fundraiser, and campaign contributions show Ahern is benefitting from her husband's Tallahassee network. Last month, $500 came in from Florida for Life, a PAC owned by state Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, and bearing the same name as the bill Van Zant introduced to outlaw all abortion and jail doctors who perform them.
Ahern, 54, says she is her own person, not to be defined by her husband's politics. Before she married, she was a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, and before that she substitute-taught at a private school, worked at a casino in Lake Tahoe, and backpacked alone through Europe, crushing grapes with her feet in France to earn airfare home.
Lerner taught for a few years and started a women's organization before becoming a full-time volunteer. She first went to School Board meetings in the 1980s to speak out against corporal punishment, and thought to run when she saw how little public discussion went on.
Lerner says she has made the school system more open. She successfully fought for some board meetings to be held in the evenings, to make it easier for working parents to attend. She pushed for the workshops that are now held between School Board meetings, providing for more public discussion. She has also helped reduce the number of students expelled.
Ahern's take is students are not doing well enough, and the adults at the table are not sufficiently alarmed. The state recently listed Florida's 300 worst-performing schools, ranked by reading achievement. Pinellas had the bottom two schools in the state, and five total among the worst 25.
"There's a lack of serious attention toward the high number of students who are not reading, writing and doing basic math as they should. We all see it in the FCAT grades," Ahern says.
Lerner, a staunch skeptic of standardized testing, is quick to retort that the FCAT is merely one test on one day.
Under superintendent Mike Grego, hired by the School Board in 2012, Pinellas has created summer and after-school programs to help its low-achieving students. And Lerner says the majority of students are doing well. Still, "We need to do better."
One idea? More music and arts in the schools. Her opponent, Ahern, wants to see more recess. Explains the person taking on the most ingrained incumbent in Pinellas: "It's human nature that people need to move."
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In 1986, Lerner ran for Congress and lost. Four years later, she ran for School Board and never looked back, though she has thought about it a few times. She says she always thought she'd run for U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young's seat when he retired. "But then, of course, he died in office."
Ahern says she would not serve on the board as long as Lerner has. "I would think the spark would dim." Ahern says she would offer a fresh perspective, a sense of urgency, a shakeup on the board.
But Lerner says nothing has dimmed. "I have very positive things I can continue to do." She doesn't understand the question. Why serve for so long? Why not?
At home in Seminole, where she has eaten half of her cheese sandwich, Lerner is looking for her pen. She wants to knock out a few thank-you notes to her donors. She has raised $13,880, the most of the four incumbents seeking re-election to the School Board. Ahern has raised $16, 237.
"There's a certain pen I like," Lerner is saying, standing up at the table in her living room. "Where's my pen?"
Her husband, a retired surgeon named Phillip, is lurking behind her with his hands on his hips. "Phil, what do you want to say?" she is asking without turning around. "Are you wondering about supper?" He is.
So Linda Lerner is saying, "I think we have enough leftovers." She is pausing, and she is looking away, and she is thinking for a moment. She has a lot left to give, she thinks, and so she is adding, "Good leftovers, I mean." And with that settled, Linda Lerner is sitting back down.
Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] Follow @lisagartner