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Board foes are pushing their pasts

"Experience" has become the mantra of the Pinellas County School Board campaign. Over and over, the four candidates have stressed their resumes as the best suited for the two seats open on the board.

In the race for the District 2 seat, Democrat Linda Lerner emphasizes her experience as a teacher, counselor and social-services advocate. Republican Bruce McDowell stresses his business and family background.

In the contest for the at-large seat, Republican Frank X. Pesuth talks of his educational and business experience. Democrat John Sanguinett touts his years as a children's advocate and family counselor.

The board members who hold the seats now _ John Espey in District 2 and Robert Moore in the at-large seat _ were defeated in the primary, so voters countywide will be selecting new members to the seven-member board.

In some areas, the candidates speak in the same terms. All want to curb the number of dropouts, improve test scores, raise teacher salaries and strengthen prekindergarten programs.

But differences emerge.

Lerner and McDowell, for example, clash on several issues, including whether creationism should be taught in school, whether School Board races should be partisan and even on what time the board should meet.

One of Lerner's campaign pledges is to try to move board meetings from mornings to evenings, so more people could attend. That is necessary if the board wants to get more parents involved, she said.

McDowell, who runs a family-owned business, opposes the idea. "There would be a minimum cost of $15,000 to pay people to carry forth the School Board meetings," he said. "And how many moms and dads at 11 o'clock in the evening are going to be willing to pay a babysitter? And how many moms and dads are going to be willing to stay to the wee hours of the morning?"

Lerner, who does volunteer community work full time, also supports non-partisan elections, while McDowell favors the current system.

"My opponent's biggest asset is the R beside his name," Lerner said.

And McDowell says creationism should be taught along with evolution in science courses, while Lerner opposes any religious teaching in school.

"I will fight any attempt to bring any religious doctrine in the schools, and that way we protect the beliefs of all religions," she said.

In the at-large race, Pesuth and Sanguinett show a difference in perspective more than in philosophy.

Pesuth, who retired last year after 30 years with Honeywell, emphasizes in campaign speeches that he is a School Board veteran. He was on the board eight years until he was defeated two years ago. He also talks from a businessman's perspective about what education should be in the coming years.

"Business will become more visible. Business will become more concerned. Business will become more involved in the years to come," he said. "We have to be able to field a world class educational system.

"I would encourage voters to compare our education and our experience and realize that this is an over $650-million (school system) budget and decide who has had more experience in that area," Pesuth said. "Also, keeping in mind that the classroom teachers, in the final analysis, are the ones who believe I am the one who can better serve the educational community, the children and the parents."

Pesuth has been endorsed by the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

Sanguinett, executive director of a child-abuse prevention agency, approaches his campaign from the social-services perspective.

"My career has focused on strengthening families, encouraging parents to be more involved in their children and their children's growth," he said. "What I will bring to the School Board is a community perspective first.

"I also will bring a fresh perspective, not of the '80s but of the '90s, a perspective of a coalition builder dedicated to bringing groups together, dedication to inclusion not exclusion," Sanguinett said. He also said he would be an independent voice without past ties to the school system.

One of the main areas where Sanguinett and Pesuth disagree is on school-based health clinics.

Sanguinett strongly supports the idea. Such clinics could offer disease-prevention education, immunizations, nutritional information and a host of services children aren't getting now, he said. "The focus should be on making kids well enough so they can succeed in school."

Pesuth opposes school-based clinics. Some of the services are and should be offered in schools, he said, but he worries about how far the clinics would go.

"Where I have a problem is the dispensing of contraceptives, and if people now are equating health clinics to that, then i think it's worthy of more discussions," he said.

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