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Pinellas School Board candidates politely debate the issues at forum

SEMINOLE — It was a polite affair.

Nine candidates for the Pinellas County School Board kept it civil Thursday at a two-hour public forum at St. Petersburg College's Seminole campus. They found a lot to agree about, though a few sharp differences emerged as well.

The most contentious of the four races was in District 6, where longtime board member Linda Lerner faces a challenge from Maureen Ahern, a 20-year journalist and the wife of state Rep. Larry Ahern. District 6 includes Seminole and Pinellas Park.

Of seven "lightning round" questions, the two disagreed five times. Lerner said the district puts enough emphasis on preventing bullying, while Ahern said it doesn't. Lerner said she doesn't support having school personnel carry a gun for protection in the public schools; Ahern said she did.

Asked what the district has done well during the last four years, Lerner said she was proud of the crafting of a strategic plan. Given her chance to speak, Ahern shot back that she found it "a little confusing" that there hadn't been a strategic plan sooner given Lerner's 24-year tenure.

The pair both supported daily recess in elementary schools and later start times in high schools.

In District 4, which includes Tarpon Springs, three candidates are vying for board member Robin Wikle's seat. Wikle announced earlier this year that she would step down mid-term.

Beverley Billiris, former mayor of Tarpon Springs and a retired teacher, squared off against John Nygren, a retired teacher, and Ken Peluso, a retired chiropractor and former chairman of the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas.

All three agreed that the school district hasn't put enough emphasis on addressing bullying. They each supported daily recess and they each opposed having school personnel carry guns. But only Peluso was in favor of a law that allows for the takeover of public schools by charter management companies. Only Nygren opposed later start times for high schools.

In District 3, an at-large district, Peggy O'Shea faces a challenge from Kent Curtis, a college professor, as she seeks a third term on the board. At-large seats are open to voters all over the county.

In an already agreeable forum, the two were the most agreeable. They concurred on all seven of the "lightning round" questions as well as several of the other questions posed by the moderators.

But Curtis, who has children at Lakewood Elementary in St. Petersburg, emphasized his track record as a parent and volunteer. He said he would focus on low-performing schools immediately.

"What I've seen in the schools concerns me," Curtis said.

O'Shea, whose children graduated from Pinellas County Schools, said parental involvement was key to improving struggling schools. She said that one of the best parts of her job as a board member is working with parents to help them navigate the school system.

In District 2, another at-large seat, Terry Krassner, a long-time principal and educator, is seeking a second term. She faces Chris Tauchnitz, a senior software engineer. They agreed that there should be later start times for high schools. They both were opposed to a law that allows charter management companies to take over public schools. And they both think the school district puts enough emphasis on addressing bullying.

But there were clear differences between them. Tauchnitz supports having school personnel or a designee from the principal carry a gun for protection in the schools. Krassner doesn't. Tauchnitz said it wasn't realistic for 95 percent of teachers to be rated effective or highly effective. Krassner said it was.

Tauchnitz also said that he supported the expansion of fundamental schools, noting the long waiting lists of students trying to get seats.

"We need to listen to those parents and give those parents the opportunities that they want," he said.

Krassner said she didn't support expansion of fundamentals "at this point in time." The district is expanding magnet programs throughout the county. It also has opened two new technology magnets for the 2014-15 school year at Gulf Beaches Elementary and Kings Highway Elementary.

The primary election is Aug. 26. Nonpartisan School Board seats get determined at that time; if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote then a runoff race will be held in November between the top two vote-getters.

One School Board race, which wasn't featured at the forum, will be determined in November. In District 7, a South Pinellas seat, board member René Flowers faces a write-in candidate, Irene Olive Cates.

The forum was sponsored by the Pinellas County Council of PTAs and several other community organizations.

Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com. Follow @fitz_ly.

Pinellas School Board candidates politely debate the issues at forum 07/31/14 [Last modified: Thursday, July 31, 2014 11:23pm]
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