The Pinellas County School Board faces familiar challenges, including closing the achievement gap and improving south St. Petersburg elementary schools that were neglected for too long after they became resegregated. The races for a countywide seat and a mid county seat provide an opportunity to treat those issues with more urgency. School Board members serve four-year terms, and the races are nonpartisan.
District 1, countywide
The two candidates who advanced to the Nov. 8 runoff for this countywide seat are well-qualified and would bring new ideas and more energy to the School Board. Matt Stewart, a human resources manager for the Hillsborough County Commission, remains the best choice for his passion and deep knowledge of the issues.
Stewart, 36, has spent most of his career working at St. Petersburg College in the office of professional development, Pinellas County government and now in Hillsborough County government. He has a clear understanding of the issues and offers some solutions. To address problems at St. Petersburg's struggling elementary schools, he suggests specific fixes: community mentors for every student, a longer school day and adoption of a discipline matrix. He wants the district's administration to be more transparent and more accountable in reporting progress. He favors a measured approach to adding magnet programs, emphasizing the need for quality in every school.
As a human resources manager, Stewart also recognizes the need to better prepare students for the workforce. He supports expanding vocational programs and career academies — job-focused programs in high schools in fields like engineering and health care.
Joanne Lentino, 67, taught for several years at Gulfport Elementary and has volunteered at Melrose Elementary. When she was the faculty representative for the union, she said School Board members were dismissive about teachers' concerns. She wants the board to be more responsive and demand greater accountability. She says the district should encourage more parental involvement and make schools more welcoming but is thin on specifics.
For Pinellas County School Board District 1, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Matt Stewart.
District 5, mid Pinellas
Incumbent Carol Cook nearly won re-election to this mid county seat in a three-way primary. But first-time candidate Eliseo Santana emerged with enough support to force a runoff. He remains the better choice over Cook, a four-term incumbent who was a member of the board that abandoned integration efforts and then failed to provide resegregated schools with promised support and resources.
Santana, 58, retired in 2012 from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office as a civilian supervisor. A father of four whose children, now grown, attended Pinellas public schools, he wants to bring an approach to the board that is less top-down and more supportive of employees.
Santana understands the challenges specific to District 5, which includes Largo, Belleair, Safety Harbor and part of Clearwater. He lives near Clearwater's long-struggling Greenwood neighborhood. As a Spanish speaker, he could help Hispanic parents get more involved in schools. He is also aware of the testing fatigue felt by parents across all demographics. As a vocational graduate, he wants to see those programs expanded.
Cook, 65, wants to add more magnet programs and would consider enhancing transportation services so that more families can access them. She also favors expanding career academies into middle schools. She has acknowledged the School Board allowed problems to develop in St. Petersburg's poor schools but says recent board-approved changes are putting those schools on the right course.
It's time for new energy and a fresh face. For Pinellas County School Board District 5, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Eliseo Santana.