Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Education

With five Pinellas School Board seats in play, races begin to take shape

Five seats on the Pinellas County School Board are open to challenge this year in an election that has the potential to dramatically change the board's makeup, and its easy relationship with second-year superintendent Mike Grego.

Four incumbents will be trying to keep their jobs on the seven-member board.

The board's longest-serving member, Linda Lerner, faces a challenge from Maureen Ahern, a former journalist and wife of state Rep. Larry Ahern. Board member Terry Krassner faces Chris Tauchnitz, a software engineer, while board member Rene Flowers has opposition in Irene Olive Cates, a former chef and co-founder of a nonprofit organization focused on social issues.

Board member Robin Wikle's seat is open after she unexpectedly announced that she would step down in the fall. Three candidates — Beverley Billiris, former mayor of Tarpon Springs, Ken Peluso, a retired chiropractor, and John Nygren, a teacher — are vying for the seat.

One incumbent, Peggy O'Shea, is without a challenger so far.

Candidates have until June 20 to qualify for the nonpartisan seats. The races could be determined in the August primary.

The current board has been largely supportive of Grego's efforts to change the 101,000-student school system, which has a $1.3 billion operating budget and is the county's largest employer.

Since Grego started almost two years ago, board members have signed off on major initiatives — expanding summer school, re-opening two elementary schools, adding pre-school spots and revamping special education services — with little dissent.

Tauchnitz said the board allows Grego to work behind the scenes. He cited a proposal last year to eliminate the district's internal police force and, more recently, plans to eliminate more than 200 positions in the special education department. The issues were made public after reporters complained.

"The board right now is a rubber stamp for anything he wants to do," Tauchnitz said.

Board members, however, say Grego has created stability in a school system that had churned through four superintendents in seven years. They credit him for expanding academic programs, for building a leadership team to replace retiring administrators and for creating more school options, such as two new elementary technology magnets set to open in August.

"It gives people choices," Flowers said of the new schools.

Both Krassner and Lerner objected publicly to the way the police proposal was handled. The proposal never made it to a vote. Lerner said some of Grego's proposals haven't required extensive debate because they have been well-thought out.

"It's a credit to him. They have been good ideas, and if there are questions they've been answered in workshops," she said.

Flowers said she has been pleased with efforts to improve training, particularly training to make teachers more "culturally responsive," and with changes made in leadership at some schools. She also is excited by a proposal to take over an alternative charter high school that focuses on getting students to graduate.

Cates said she had no problem with the job Flowers has done on the School Board, but that she would be more aggressive and innovative. One of her priorities is to get gardens in every school, something she believes would help students learn teamwork, empathy and self-reliance. Agriculture could be used in every subject, she said.

"We have to get back to our roots. We have to get back to gardening and growing our own food," Cates said.

Tauchnitz, who has two young children, said he believes there are too many former educators on the board. He would represent parents in the school system, he said.

"Bottom line is we have no parents on the board. Terry can claim she's a parent, whatever," he said, referring to Krassner's stepson, who starts 11th grade in the fall.

Krassner has a son and three stepchildren. She has raised the youngest since he was a toddler; her stepchildren's mother died of cancer in her 40s.

"They are my kids," she said.

Ahern said that the district also needed to do more to address struggling schools, some of which have passing rates for reading and math in the single digits.

"There needs to be a sense of urgency and I'm not getting that from her," she said of Lerner.

Lerner said the district has changed principals and teachers at some of its most challenging schools, but cautioned against making too much of FCAT scores, which are based on "one test and one day." Improvement won't happen overnight, she said.

"It's going to take time," she said.

Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected] Follow @fitz_ly on Twitter.

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