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Three candidates want Robin Wikle's Pinellas School Board seat

Three candidates are vying to replace School Board member Robin Wikle, who announced in February that she would vacate her seat two years early.

Her decision put five of seven board seats in play this year.

Two candidates seeking to replace Wikle have name recognition. Beverley Billiris, 66, is the former mayor of Tarpon Springs, a local business owner and a recently retired teacher. Ken Peluso, 57, is the former chairman of the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas and a retired chiropractor who narrowly lost to Wikle in 2008.

A lesser-known candidate is John Nygren, 70, who retired from teaching math in the district in 2011. He has done some consulting with the schools since then.

The nonpartisan 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.

Billiris has Wikle's endorsement, while Peluso has raised the most money — about $35,000 — and garnered key endorsements from the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, Pinellas Realtor Organization and Pinellas Educational Support Professionals Association.

Billiris has raised $8,775 and Nygren has raised $2,000.

Peluso said that he is "most passionate" about his work in education, serving as former chairman of the Early Learning Coalition, as a former board member of Calvary Christian High School in Clearwater and on Florida's Early Learning Advisory Council. Unlike his opponents, Peluso isn't an educator. He views that as a strength, considering that five of seven board seats are held by former educators.

"I believe our School Board needs a diverse membership," he said.

Billiris counters that she is the one who will bring diversity to the board. She taught for 14 years, but also has a business and government background. She served the city of Tarpon Springs for 12 years, as mayor and city commissioner. She owns a business and has worked in corporate accounting. "I come with all these qualities," she said.

Nygren is a career educator, with more than 30 years of teaching math in Florida and Massachusetts. He said he also has owned a convenience store. One of his biggest campaign promises is to increase vocational and technical opportunities for students.

"Not every child is going to college," he said.

Billiris retired in June, while Nygren retired in 2011. Billiris makes that distinction because that means she went through the state's transition to the new Florida Standards, which are a slightly different version of the Common Core and emphasize analysis and critical thinking.

She said she's seen firsthand the frustration of teachers. Teachers don't have the same control over the classroom and their lessons are scripted, she said. The lack of autonomy is pushing some out of the profession.

"I was going to teach another year," she said. "I walked away."

The Pinellas County school system doesn't have control over the state's academic standards, but it does have latitude when it comes to the curriculum and teaching methods.

Peluso surprised some people at a recent public forum by saying he favored teaching creationism in public schools, despite state standards that call for evolution to be taught. Both Billiris and Nygren said they wouldn't teach creationism.

Peluso reversed his position, saying that he was caught off-guard by the question. He said he would teach creationism in a world religion course, but not alongside evolution.

The candidates agree on several issues. All three favor mandatory daily recess for elementary students. They don't think the School District is doing enough to address bullying and school violence. And they don't support having school personnel carry guns for protection.

On several key issues, though, the candidates disagree.

At another public forum, Peluso said that he supports a state law that allows struggling public schools to be taken over by charter management companies. Billiris and Nygren both said they oppose that law.

Billiris supports expanding fundamental schools, a position that is popular with parents but hasn't won any favor with the current School Board. Fundamental schools emphasize good behavior and parental involvement. Students who don't behave go back to their regular zoned school; students also are penalized if their parents don't attend regular meetings. There are long waiting lists for fundamental schools.

Nygren said he doesn't support expansion of fundamentals because he doesn't agree with punishing good students for their parents' behavior. Peluso said he supports expansion, but "not at the expense of children who, for numerous reasons, cannot or are not able to comply with the more stringent rules."

The seat could be determined in the Aug. 26 primary if one of the candidates gets more than 50 percent of the vote. If not, a run-off between the top two vote-getters will be held in the Nov. 4 general election.

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

Three candidates want Robin Wikle's Pinellas School Board seat 08/12/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 12, 2014 11:38pm]
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