Times recommends: 4 for Pinellas School Board

Published July 18 2018
Updated July 27 2018

Voters will elect at least one new member to the Pinellas County School Board, as incumbent Linda Lerner decided not to seek re-election after serving 28 years. There are two countywide seats and two district seats on the Aug. 28 ballot, and there are strong candidates in each race. School Board members are paid $44,163. They serve four-year terms, and the races are nonpartisan. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers advance to the November election.

Jeff Larsen | District 2, countywide

Former Tarpon Springs City Commissioner Jeff Larsen stands out for his enthusiasm and clear ideas, and he would bring new energy to the School Board.

Larsen, 41, served eight years as a city commissioner and was one of the commission’s most thoughtful, diligent members. He teaches eighth-grade intensive reading at Gulf Middle School in New Port Richey and has two sons in Pinellas public schools. He wants to make the school district more accessible by holding board meetings at more convenient times and helping parents navigate school choice programs. He wants to improve conditions for teachers by soliciting more feedback, improving evaluations and conducting exit interviews to better understand why employees leave. He would tackle the achievement gap by first focusing on teacher retention.

Incumbent Terry Krassner, 66, of Largo has served two terms and says the district is headed in the right direction. She acknowledges some challenges such as over-testing, but she offers few ideas for improvement. Her experience as a classroom teacher and principal have been positives, but she seems to look more backward than forward.

Lisa Cane, 31, of Palm Harbor owns a performing arts academy and is focused on increasing arts and music education in schools, noting how they aid learning and could help narrow the achievement gap. She also wants a return to basic courses such as civics and geography.

Krassner has been a knowledgeable, well-intentioned School Board member, but it’s time for a fresh perspective and a stronger leader. For Pinellas County School Board District 2, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Jeff Larsen.

Peggy O’Shea | District 3, countywide

Incumbent School Board member Peggy O’Shea faces two challengers in this countywide seat. Her experience and no-nonsense approach continue to be an asset, and every board member should not be a former teacher or school administrator.

O’Shea, 68, of Oldsmar has a strong grasp of the district’s finances, which remain relatively healthy. She remains fully engaged and well-prepared after serving 12 years. She is focused on making sustainable progress to close the achievement gap by continuing the holistic approach that tracks disciplinary issues, minority hiring, graduation rates and other factors. She also wants to expand career education programs with help from the business community. The next goal for those programs, she said, should be steering more struggling students into them.

Nicole Carr, 47, of St. Petersburg holds advanced degrees in education and worked in a variety of jobs within the district administration, as a school counselor and as assistant principal at one of St. Petersburg’s struggling elementary schools. She would examine the level of district-mandated testing and the way teachers are evaluated. She wants to decrease the density of high-needs students in low-performing schools by adding programs that make those schools more attractive to all families. Carr has bounced around from academia and numerous jobs for relatively short periods, and she can get bogged down in acronyms and education theory.

Carl Zimmermann, 67, of Palm Harbor is a recently retired teacher from Countryside High School and a former state legislator who has a solid grasp of education issues. He wants to improve the climate in schools, which he says is driving teachers from the profession, and reduce the student-teacher ratio. But his proposal for "drop-in teaching" days as a School Board member seems overly ambitious.

For Pinellas County School Board District 3, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Peggy O’Shea.

Matt Stewart | District 6

Matt Stewart, who lost a runoff for a School Board seat in 2016, is the strongest choice to succeed the retiring Linda Lerner in District 6, which includes northeast St. Petersburg and the south Pinellas beaches.

Stewart, 38, of St. Petersburg is a human resources manager for Hillsborough County government. He has a strong command of the issues and a solution-oriented approach. He wants to help close the achievement gap by monitoring student progress in real time, not just through end-of-the-year testing, and by recruiting more minority teachers. His other priorities include strengthening neighborhood schools, increasing parent involvement and working with businesses to build a better pipeline that bolsters the local workforce while getting students career-ready. He represents a demographic that the School Board is lacking: a young professional who as a foster parent will have kids in the school system.

Lorena Grizzle, 65, of Seminole is a veteran educator who teaches children with autism at Dunedin High and has twice run unsuccessfully for the Legislature. She wants to improve teacher morale by implementing more peer review, improving the teacher evaluation system and reducing the heavy load of district-mandated testing.

Bill Dudley, 74, is a retired high school teacher and coach, and a former St. Petersburg City Council member who ran unsuccessfully for School Board in 2016. He wants to establish a clear attendance policy, expand vocational programs and improve the busing system and school start times by partnering with public transit.

Stewart would bring new energy and a fresh perspective to the School Board. For Pinellas County School Board District 6, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Matt Stewart.

Rene Flowers | District 7

Initially defensive about struggling elementary schools in her St. Petersburg district, Rene Flowers has embraced the challenges and worked closely with the district to make modest progress. The only African-American on the School Board has a deep connection to the neighborhoods and community leaders, effectively advocates for more programs and resources, and deserves to be re-elected.

Flowers, 53, previously served on the St. Petersburg City Council and works for Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services. She is focused on kindergarten readiness and supporting parents. She also wants to add attractor programs at struggling schools to draw a more diverse pool of families. She wants the district’s new security officers to play a student support role in addition to securing campuses.

Bilan Joseph, 34, of Gulfport is a St. Petersburg native who admirably returned from Gainesville last year to help improve the schools in the neighborhoods where she grew up. She teaches at Azalea Middle School and has witnessed the challenges as well as the school’s dramatic turnaround. Joseph is a strong candidate, and she wants the district to take the focus off assessments to give teachers more flexibility.

Nicholas Wright, 65, of St. Petersburg teaches career technical education at Lealman Innovation Academy, an alternative middle and high school. He is a strong role model for students and says the school district has taken its eye off too many kids who come from poverty and let their problems overwhelm the schools. He wants to hold board meetings at different locations, listen to teachers’ ideas and provide more personalized learning through technology.

Tharius Bethel, 37, of St. Petersburg is a violence prevention specialist at John Hopkins Middle School. The chaotic atmosphere he describes is disturbing, and he wants the School Board to better address discipline problems and provide all students with equal opportunities.

This is a strong field of challengers dedicated to improving struggling schools, but they cannot match Flowers’ deep connections within the community, historical perspective and grasp of the details of programs aimed at improving struggling schools. For Pinellas County School Board District 7, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Rene Flowers.