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School campaigns seem lost in shuffle

Published Oct. 8, 2006|Updated Dec. 11, 2008

The other candidates had spoken for two hours when the four people running for the Pinellas School Board finally got their turn.

By then, about 9 p.m., many in the crowd of about 200 at a Lealman VFW Hall were munching on hors d'oeuvres and chatting among themselves. The School Board candidates got less than 30 minutes, enough time for an opening statement, two questions and some closing remarks.

The Wednesday night political forum was a measure of how low-key the School Board race has become, considering the board's relatively high profile in recent years over issues such as the choice plan, busing troubles, budget cuts and its own internal feuds.

"It's almost getting like there's not a School Board race anymore," candidate Peggy O'Shea said in an interview before the Lealman forum. "It's been kind of quiet."

Her opponent, Sean Michael O'Flannery, says he began accepting invitations to living room coffees and small lunches once it became clear that no civic group would be sponsoring a major forum like those held before the Sept. 5 primary.

To make the most of short appearances, he has pared his pitch to an "elevator speech."

O'Shea, 56, and O'Flannery, 38, are the remaining candidates in the countywide race for the board's District 3 seat.

In the District 7 race, voted only in south county, board member Mary Brown, 71, faces a challenge from Jennifer S. Crockett, 33.

Each race started with five candidates. But when none got more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary, the state law governing nonpartisan races dictated that both contests be settled in the general election.

Among the four, O'Shea and Brown were the top vote getters, garnering 39 and 48 percent of the vote in their respective primary races.

As the candidates renew and refine their appeals to voters before Nov. 7, the school choice plan has emerged as one of the top issues.

O'Shea, a professional mediator and political consultant, says most voters she speaks to agree that Pinellas should have a system of neighborhood schools when the district's obligation to provide racially mixed schools expires next year.

The issue is more of a concern in the south county, where most of Pinellas' black residents live. But even there, O'Shea says, "it's not the hot-button issue I thought it would be."

O'Shea, an Oldsmar resident with a daughter who graduated from racially mixed Gibbs High, says she could make a strong argument for a system that keeps schools integrated.

"I understand it totally," she says. "But, overwhelmingly, the public is saying we want neighborhood schools and I think we're obligated to listen to them."

O'Shea says she supports a system of neighborhood schools that also would allow choices for families who wanted to try schools outside their neighborhoods. That system also should give schools with struggling students the money they need, she says.

O'Flannery, a high school social studies teacher and volleyball coach, is a strong supporter of neighborhood schools. He says the busing plan for choice has been far too expensive.

"I want to put that money back into the schools," he said to applause at Wednesday's forum. "I want copy machines that work, textbooks I can give to every student. Programs are not being funded because we're spending too much money on this so-called choice program."

The racial makeup of a school should not matter, he says, as long as it has the money it needs from the district and strong support from teachers, administrators and parents.

He proposes a system that would allow families to choose among a cluster of schools in their area of the county. Families could select a school outside their cluster but would not be given bus service, he says.

In the District 7 race, both Brown and Crockett say maintaining racial diversity is important. But they differ on how they would preserve it in a county of mostly segregated neighborhoods.

Brown still hopes the district will consider placing students in schools by using their family income or academic performance. A citizen task force on choice has suggested those methods as a way to keep schools racially diverse when the district's strict ratios disappear before next school year.

But School Board attorney Jim Robinson has said they likely would not withstand a court challenge.

Crockett says the district should focus instead on creating more magnet programs and shoring up existing magnets as a means of voluntarily integrating schools.

She says mixing low- and high-performing students in schools can help close the achievement gap between black and white students. Higher achievers can mentor and serve as role models for children who struggle, she says.

The way to close the gap is to lower teacher-pupil ratios, says Brown, who points to her experience when contrasting herself to Crockett.

After four years on the board, Brown knows what it's like to be "in the trenches," she says. "It's not as simple as saying, 'I'm going to come on the board and change things' "

She notes that she has raised five children and a granddaughter, all of whom were educated in public schools.

But Crockett counters that, as a lifelong Pinellas resident and a graduate of St. Petersburg High School, she's actually lived in the district longer than Brown. She notes that her children - ages 9, 7 and 4 - are enrolled in Pinellas schools while Brown's children attended school elsewhere.

"I couldn't be more passionate about education because of my own kids," Crockett says. "With one child getting ready for middle school and another about to enter kindergarten, I'm very concerned."

She says the district uses cookie-cutter solutions and has made little real progress since Brown has been on the board.

"We definitely have some problems," Brown says, "but I think we're on the road to solving them."

In the District 3 race, both candidates say they would work to restore discipline in schools and improve teacher morale.

O'Shea supports improving teacher pay and placing less emphasis on standardized testing.

O'Flannery says he would push to reduce teacher paperwork and improve teacher evaluations, training and classroom technology.

The two candidates with similar names differ most on what they emphasize.

O'Shea says she would focus, if elected, on improving vocational and technical education for students who aren't bound for college. She also touts her ability to work with others and find common ground.

Teachers are the key for O'Flannery, who has been teaching for about nine years. Make their work lives easier and put more money in the classrooms, he says, and many of the district's problems will solve themselves.

He is tired, he says of teachers leaving "because they love the classroom but hate everything else."

IF YOU VOTE

* All Pinellas voters can cast a ballot in the District 3 School Board race between Sean Michael O'Flannery and Peggy O'Shea.

* Only voters in District 7 can cast a ballot in the School Board race between Mary Brown and Jennifer S. Crockett. District 7 generally covers St. Petersburg south of 54th Avenue N, Kenneth City, Gulfport and South Pasadena.

* The deadline to register to vote is Tuesday. For more information, call the Pinellas supervisor of elections at (727) 464-3551.

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