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Pinellas School Board battle pits insiders against outsiders

For most jobs, experience is a plus. The more intimate your knowledge of the field, the better equipped you are to do a good job. Unless, it appears, the job you are seeking is a seat on the Pinellas County School Board.

In that case, experience may be painted as a detriment, accompanied by accusations that the experienced candidate is too much of an "insider" to be a good leader. Sometimes, the accusation comes from a candidate who, by any reasonable definition, is an insider, too.

It was entertaining to watch the nine School Board candidates try to turn the issue of experience to their own advantage during last week's televised candidate forum.

In each of the four races, there is a candidate labeled, fairly or not, as an insider and a candidate painted as a more objective outsider. But the tactic doesn't always work.

Consider the race in District 6 between Brian Hawley and 20-year School Board veteran Linda Lerner. Lerner, a former teacher, has far more experience in education than Hawley, a business major in college who switched later to teaching and has taught for less than 10 years. In the real world outside politics, Lerner's long experience would gain her special consideration. But Hawley manages to turn it into a negative. During Tuesday's forum, he declared that those happy with the district should vote for Lerner and those unhappy should vote for him, presumably so he could fix the things that Lerner, with all her experience, couldn't.

Lost in the comparison, somehow, is that Hawley is an insider in the school district, too. He teaches at Largo Middle School and is the teachers union representative there.

A similar situation arises in the District 3 race, where one-term board member Peggy O'Shea is challenged by Greg Hunsinger. In this play, O'Shea is the insider, Hunsinger the outsider. But O'Shea has been an employee of the school district only since she was elected in 2006. Hunsinger retired two years ago after teaching in Pinellas schools for 35 years. Who's the insider?

The insider versus outsider approach seems most applicable for two of the three candidates in the District 7 race, Jim Jackson and Lew Williams. Williams spent 34 years working for the Pinellas County Schools, rising from teacher in 1970 to area superintendent before retiring in 2005. His roots here are deep. Jackson, on the other hand, never has been employed by the Pinellas district and has lived in Pinellas County only since 2007.

At the forum, Jackson pointed out he has no loyalties to anyone in the district and would be an objective outsider. True. But which candidate has the most relevant background for the job? Is it Williams, with long years of familiarity with Pinellas' K-12 programs, or is it Jackson, who spent most of a long teaching career at the college level?

A fresh face on the School Board can be good for the district, but so can a so-called insider as long as that person has a clear-eyed view of the district's needs and is able to put friendships and old assumptions aside to make the right decisions for the district.

The candidate forum became downright entertaining when candidates faced a lightning round of questions and were told they could answer only "yes" or "no." Some candidates just couldn't cope with multiple choice; they tried to turn it into an essay test. Some froze, and you could almost see their brains working as they weighed the consequences of each answer.

Lerner solved the problem by creating a new option, "unsure," which she used for two answers, commenting that some of the questions didn't lend themselves to simplistic "yes" or "no" answers but required a more thoughtful approach. Her creation of the "unsure" option brought laughs from the audience but later criticism from people who said she should have chosen "yes" or "no," especially since her opponent, Hawley, did so. But Lerner is in office, while Hawley isn't. A "yes" or "no" answer now to a question about whether Lerner would support paying a higher salary to teachers who work in high-poverty schools might box her into a premature decision on an important issue.

The forum, which put the candidates under stage lights and in front of rolling TV cameras, was no doubt nerve-racking for the candidates, but gave viewers a rare opportunity to see them unrehearsed, without the polished prepared remarks they deliver in other public appearances.

If you missed the forum, there will be plenty of replays between now and Aug. 24, when the campaigning will be over and you, the voter, will be on the hot seat.

Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the North Pinellas editions of the St. Petersburg Times.

fast facts

Tune in

The Pinellas County School Board candidate forum held Tuesday will be rebroadcast until Aug. 23 by the school district's station, WPDS-TV 14. The replays may be viewed on Bright House digital cable Channel 614 and On Demand Channel 343, Verizon Channel 46 and Knology Channel 2. The forum lasts about two hours.

Replay times and dates are 4 p.m. Aug. 9, 13, 16, 20 and 23; 9 a.m. Aug. 14, 15, 21 and 22; and 8 p.m. Aug. 10 and 17.

Pinellas School Board battle pits insiders against outsiders 08/07/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 6, 2010 12:59pm]
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