St. Petersburg's mayoral candidate pledge to help improve schools

ST. PETERSBURG — The frontrunners in the race for mayor have made many promises when it comes to the city's schools.

They pledge to motivate parents, drum up extra funding, help teachers and principals with disciplinary issues, organize tutoring services and promote vocational training.

They'll do this, they say, despite not having any actual authority over the schools.

The six leading mayoral candidates said they would follow in Mayor Rick Baker's footsteps and continue to make education a city priority.

"He has put the effort in to be supportive of the schools for St. Petersburg," said School Board member Mary L. Tyus Brown, whose district includes St. Petersburg. "I am hoping that whoever is mayor next will continue to do that because our kids are our future citizens."

As St. Petersburg continues to transition to neighborhood-based schools, candidates said they would ensure local schools receive equitable resources.

They also said they wish every school in St. Petersburg was a fundamental school, a system that requires parents to stay involved and aggressively tackles disciplinary issues.

In the meantime, they want your help.

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Education is not a new topic in St. Petersburg politics.

City Hall's transition to a strong mayor government in 1994 created a position of unprecedented authority.

Baker used that bully pulpit to make school improvement a cornerstone of his administration after his 2001 election. He gave city employees time off to mentor in local schools each week and encouraged them to tutor at city recreation centers after school. More than 100 city employees take part in the mentoring program.

Baker also created an annual awards ceremony to honor improving schools and a scholarship program for 1,000 low-income youths. He encouraged local corporate giants to adopt city schools.

"Those are the most important programs he has done," said Deveron Gibbons, a vice president at Amscot Financial, which adopted Clearview Avenue Elementary through Baker's plan.

The candidates all said they would continue the programs.

Only Kathleen Ford added a caveat: she would examine the effectiveness of the mentoring program to see if city dollars were being put to good use.

• • •

Many of the ideas call for small armies of volunteers.

Gibbons, 36, said he would engage parents, ask corporate partners to give more than money and advocate for more vocational training.

"There is nothing wrong with being a plumber or a brick mason," he said. "Those are legitimate jobs that are needed."

He said he also would launch a citywide task force to address school discipline problems, a conversation that would include cultural sensitivity training to address differences among the area's diverse families.

Ford, 52, said she would advocate for job training programs for teenagers and adults.

Ford, a lawyer and former council member, also wants to fund one additional school resource officer for each high school by tapping city reserves.

"There are more problems with drugs and gangs in our schools and if we can get ahead of the curve with our intelligence and be proactive with our criminal issues, let's go ahead and intervene before our behavioral problems become criminal," she said.

Bill Foster, who infamously sent a letter to the School Board last year promoting creationism, said he would not opine on school curriculum as mayor.

But Foster, 46, vowed to significantly expand the mayor's education policies.

He would ask corporate sponsors to offer managerial tutoring to school leaders and math and reading tutoring to students. He also would work with parents and community leaders to improve graduation rates.

Teenagers and college students would be able to intern at city departments, he said. Students also would be able to complete their required volunteer hours through city programs.

"The School Board can take our assistance or leave it," he said.

City Council member Jamie Bennett, 57, said his top priority would be lobbying for more education dollars. He also would support more vocational programs.

"The mayor has a job to speak out," said Bennett, an adjunct professor at Eckerd College. "You can't just sit by and watch your school system disintegrate."

Scott Wagman, a mentor at James B. Sanderlin School Elementary, said he would ask Eckerd College to provide academic credits to its students who tutor public school students at the city's recreation centers.

Wagman, 56, would open the centers in the afternoon instead of the early morning and leave the doors open late to keep latchkey kids occupied.

Wagman, a real estate investor, said his pledge to replace the city's police chief would have a significant impact on schools. "If you want to improve the issues with gangs and drugs in schools, you need to get it off the street and that is basic policing," he said.

As a City Council member, Larry Williams said he was the first city leader to call for meetings between school managers and the City Council. As a business owner, he fought to found a charter school for frustrated parents, but the effort was abandoned after the school failed to attract enough students.

Williams, 56, also is the school system's fiercest critic among the 10 candidates for mayor.

"How do you right now say that you would bring your kids here and put them in a public school? That's a difficult situation," he said recently. "Schools have been in trouble for a long time in St. Petersburg."

Williams said he would work with school leaders to fashion a plan and provide them with resources they might need.

"I'm going to have them tell me what will be the most helpful for the city to do, and I am going to do it," he said.

Key dates

Primary: Sept. 1

General election: Nov. 3

St. Petersburg's mayoral candidate pledge to help improve schools 08/25/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 2:38am]

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