The Pinellas County schools desperately need new faces at the top. The elected School Board has been dysfunctional in recent years, and it needs fresh thinking, a sharper focus and new energy to tackle a dropout rate that is too high, an achievement gap that is too wide and a leadership void that is too serious to ignore.
It is time for a new direction, and three of the board's seven seats are on the Aug. 26 ballot. In each of these nonpartisan races, the top two finishers advance to the general election if no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote.
The current board has been so absorbed in bureaucratic minutiae and personality dustups that two members once used an important debate over a $19-million budget cut to argue over whether school bus seats should be upholstered or slip-covered. One of the problems is the lack of professional balance on the board. Though no school board would be complete without experienced educators, Pinellas has too many. Six of the seven board members are former teachers. More to the point, not a single member holds a fulltime job elsewhere. Those factors tend to produce a crimped attention to classroom practices and meetings that seem never to end.
Pinellas is a district with a $1.5-billion annual budget, 17,000 employees and 105,000 students, and a School Board that cannot see the big picture. The district doesn't need a board that designs bus seat covers. It needs people from different walks of civic life who are eager to set direction for professionals who carry out the policies. We offer the following recommendations with an eye toward bringing a fresh perspective and broader thinking to a board that sorely lacks both.
District 1 (countywide) Janet Clark, a 54-year-old former Meadowlawn Middle School teacher, was elected four years ago with a chip on her shoulder about district administrators. It hasn't gone away. Her distrust has led her down a path of futile conspiracy theories, once causing her to challenge the job description for a school clerk. She does not deserve another term.
There are three credible challengers. Jennifer Crockett, 35, lost to incumbent Mary Brown in 2006. She is a mother and school volunteer who has worked tirelessly in the past two years to hone her knowledge of the district's problems. Max Loden, 58, is retired after 35 years as a teacher and administrator in Pinellas schools, and says he admires the teaching talent that exists in schools today.
Grant Smith, 47, is in a category by himself. He has a doctorate in measurement and statistics, built a profitable business helping companies understand their markets and talks about the importance of "removing barriers to educational achievement." He has worked on school PTAs and advisory councils, in neighborhood associations and Little Leagues. He says classroom discipline is a requisite to learning and individual assessment is necessary to meet the needs of each student.
Smith has never run for political office, but he has impressed people on the campaign trail with his intellect and view "from 10,000 feet." He brings the kind of business background that is missing from the current board, and he seems unlikely to get mired in micromanaging. Clark, the incumbent, has failed to move beyond her distracting accusations. Smith offers the best hope for fresh ideas.
For Pinellas County School Board District 1, the Times recommends Grant Smith.
District 2 (countywide) Nancy Bostock is resigning this seat to run for County Commission, and the five candidates include some predictable profiles: two teachers, a former School Board member and a former city commissioner. The most intriguing choice, though, is a public defender who winces every time she encounters a teenager who has turned away from education.
Nina Hayden, 34, has a law degree from Stetson University College of Law and deals frequently in her job with youthful offenders who have made bad choices. That has led her to mentor children and to push for high school programs that relate to students who are not on the college track.
"We need to promote the value of getting a diploma," Hayden says. "This means creating a curriculum that is relevant, stimulating and teaches the student the financial gains that can be made in the work force postgraduation."
Two other candidates in the field are also impressive. David Archie, 55, is the director of Citizens Alliance for Progress and a former Tarpon Springs city commissioner with an extensive history of community work. Sean Michael O'Flannery, 40, is a Lakewood High School social studies teacher who ran two years ago and wants to raise graduation rates in part by getting tougher with attendance and discipline policies.
Like Grant Smith in District 1, Hayden has never run for political office. What she brings to the campaign are cogent priorities for schools and a criminal lawyer's vantage point.
For Pinellas County School Board District 2, the Times recommends Nina Hayden.
District 4 (north county) Three-term board member Jane Gallucci is, like her colleague Nancy Bostock, resigning to run for the County Commission. There are four candidates for her seat, but Ken Peluso stands above the rest.
Peluso, 51, runs a chiropractic clinic and has been so active in civic causes in his Palm Harbor community that he was once named honorary mayor. He has served on numerous school committees, chamber of commerce boards, the fire pension board, community services board and the Pinellas Assembly. Most notably, he is current chairman of the Pinellas Early Learning Coalition, which oversees the state's prekindergarten and school readiness efforts.
Robin Wikle, 45, is the other candidate in this race who has impressive qualities. She and her husband run Coldwell Banker Wikle Properties, and she is active in her community of Tarpon Springs, having served in school, youth, recreation and scouting organizations. She worked as a special education teacher for six years, and wants to build parental involvement and high school vocational programs.
Wikle brings energy to the campaign, but Peluso brings the stronger resume.
For Pinellas County School Board District 4, the Times recommends Ken Peluso.
Opportunity to reply The Times offers candidates not recommended by the editorial board an opportunity to reply. Candidates for School Board should send their replies by 5 p.m. Thursday to: Philip Gailey, editor of editorials, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731; by fax: (727) 893-8675; or online at: www.tampabay.com/ letters. Replies are limited to 200 words.