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Race guarantees new face on School Board

Of the four races this year for the Pinellas County School Board, only one guarantees the board a new face, not to mention an Irish surname.

The countywide contest for the District 3 seat offers voters a choice between Peggy O'Shea, a professional mediator who has been heavily involved in school district affairs since her twin daughters, now 23, attended Pinellas schools, and Sean Michael O'Flannery, a 10-year high school social studies teacher and volleyball coach who says improving working conditions for his 8,000 colleagues will solve a number of ills.

What also sets the race apart is a glaringly wide gap in funding, a fact that has lit a late spark in an otherwise low-profile campaign.

O'Shea, a well-known Republican organizer in her second School Board campaign, has raised $33,415, with still more to be reported. She has spent it largely on campaign signs and mailings targeting likely voters.

O'Flannery, a first-time candidate and a teacher at Lakewood High School, has raised $4,300, which paid for his qualifying fee and a much smaller number of signs. To get the vote out, he's relying on an e-mail chain anchored by friends, supporters and 200 to 300 fellow teachers.

Lately, he also has been criticizing O'Shea for accepting $20,000 in July from the Pinellas Republican Party, which spent a total of $50,000 on School Board races.

Citing a state law that makes school board races nonpartisan, O'Flannery says he recently turned down a $250 donation from the Greater Pinellas Democratic Club.

"I could have used the money because I wanted to get signs. But this is a nonpartisan race," he said, referring to the 1998 constitutional amendment that made school board races nonpartisan. "This is what the voters wanted. You want politics out of it."

As she did in the primary race, O'Shea dismissed the criticism, saying Republican leadership is not trying to get her to vote a certain way.

Party organizations have always been part of local races, O'Shea argued. "I don't think you'll ever take political parties out of politics. Let's be realistic: That's what political parties exist for."

O'Shea and O'Flannery emerged from a field of six candidates in the Sept. 5 primary.

She finished with 39 percent of the vote and he with 20 percent, just 217 votes ahead of candidate Lew Williams.

During a quiet campaign since then, O'Shea and O'Flannery have tried to make sure voters pay more attention to issues and resumes than their similar last names.

Where they agree:

- Both want to raise the level of discourse on a board that in recent years has squabbled and meandered through issues.

- Both pledge to improve discipline in schools.

- Both believe schools will need extra support next year, when Pinellas no longer will be required to use race when assigning students to schools. Though some schools could be predominantly black or all-black for the first time since the 1960s, both say the district should respond by ensuring those schools have equal resources and lots of support.

How should the district assign students to schools in the future?

O'Shea suggests making attendance zones smaller, especially for elementary schools, so that students will end up closer to home.

O'Flannery suggests a system of school clusters. Families would have a choice of schools within their cluster, but would have to provide their own transportation to go elsewhere.

The candidates differ most when it comes to their backgrounds and what they emphasize.

O'Shea points to her work on the school advisory council at Gibbs High, where she helped push the district to build a new campus. She also became involved in the late 1990s at Seminole Vocational Education Center, where she helped push for a stronger program.

Strengthening the district's vocational and technical offerings is a focus of her campaign.

She says her experience as a mediator has helped bridge disagreements and push projects forward.

O'Flannery says his classroom experience makes him more attuned to pressing issues inside schools.

He says he would push for a range of improvements, including reduced paperwork and fewer club assignments for teachers, better teacher training and classroom technology, a later start time for high schools, a stronger focus on retaining teachers and added stability by reducing principal transfers.

"I consider myself the classroom teachers' candidate," he said.

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