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1 school seat set, 1 up in air // PINELLAS SCHOOL BOARD

Incumbent Susan Latvala cruised to re-election on the Pinellas School Board on Tuesday night, but the outcome of the other board race went down to the wire.

Republican Latvala defeated first-time candidate Lucy Luisi for the District 3 seat, which was elected countywide.

Republican Jane Gallucci slugged it out with Democrat Nancy Patula for the at-large seat.

"I'm just one happy person," Latvala said. "I am really excited. It is the best feeling in the world to have the public say they like what you are doing."

Latvala, who has become the most controversial member of a School Board known for its contentiousness, attributed her victory to a reputation for speaking her mind.

At times, that outspokenness has gotten Latvala, 47, into trouble, as it did when she called for the resignation of Superintendent Howard Hinesley. The board held a special meeting during which people praised Hinesley and criticized Latvala.

Another time, she commented that African-American leaders who wanted more blacks in administrative positions should find people who could pass the test. That caused some to label her a racist.

But those comments apparently did not hurt her Tuesday, as Latvala took the size of the victory as a signal to continue her free speaking. With 93 percent of the vote counted, Latvala had more than 59 percent.

"I have represented the community well," Latvala said. "Obviously, I'm doing what they expect of their School Board members."

That means, Latvala said, that she will continue to press for more discussion about the things that are wrong with the school system. In the past, she said, only the good has been talked about, while the bad has been ignored.

"We have a great school system, but there's always room for improvement," she said. "We have to fix the things that aren't as good as they could be."

Whoever wins the at-large seat will become the one new face on the School Board.

The seat currently is held by Andrea Thacker, the board chairwoman, who came in second to Gallucci during the primary. Rather than face a runoff, Thacker withdrew from the race.

Gallucci, a guidance counselor at Carwise Middle School in Palm Harbor, spent a tense evening biting a finger and occasionally the earpiece of her glasses as she watched the vote come in at the supervisor of elections office. Most of the evening, she maintained about a 6,000-vote lead, but as the final results came in, Patula closed the gap.

Patula, who was suffering from a cold, spent a short time nervously watching the results at the supervisor of elections office.

Then she left to return to a post-campaign party at the Turtle Club in Clearwater. She was hoping for a victory as a birthday present to herself. She turns 45 today.

Gallucci, 47, said she did not expect the race to be so close and wasn't sure why it was.

"If you read the newspaper and you came out to forums, there should have been obvious differences," Gallucci said.

Patula, a 45-year-old computer training technician for the city of Clearwater, said there could be several reasons for the close race.

"We were both qualified candidates for this position," Patula said. "I believe a lot of it does come back to . . . the fact that we had no incumbent."

Patula said the results show a Democrat can be elected in Pinellas.

She said it appeared that there was a crossover vote of Republicans who supported her, rejecting party loyalties.