CLEARWATER — The summer's first big forum for Pinellas School Board candidates saw plenty of agreement on improving neighborhood schools and narrowing the district's lingering achievement gap.
Where candidates varied was in their backgrounds, which often informed their pitches for how, exactly, to get those things done.
For instance, Nicole Carr, who's running in District 3 with a deep resume in district accountability, said her time working with troubled schools helped her realize that the board needs someone who will vet policies long before they're enacted and end up doing harm.
"I recognized that we didn't need people in the building telling everyone what to do — We needed feet on ground," she said. "It became so evident to me how much policy negatively impacts our everyday lives."
District 2's Lisa Cane, a parent and performing arts teacher, said she's fueled by her disappointment in her daughter's faulty social studies curriculum.
"This isn't progress when our fourth graders can't read the U.S. map and don't know where the states are located," she said.
Teachers Jeff Larsen, Carl Zimmermann and Lorena Grizzle drew on their time in the classroom to bemoan low morale and high turnover. Tharius Bethel, who does violence prevention at John Hopkins Middle School, said that a curriculum obsessed with reading and math has led to a breakdown in life skills, such as home ec, leading to more disengaged students.
"Let's be real, school is not a place that they're excited about going," he said. "They're growing up faster. The world is at their front door right now."
Rene Flowers, Peggy O'Shea and Terry Krassner, the incumbents, talked about work the school board has already been doing, such as in career and technical programs, and emphasized the relationships they've built in their years on the board.
At the Clearwater campus of St. Petersburg College, hosts first invited up candidates from District 6, which covers parts of Largo, Seminole and the southern gulf beaches, and District 7, which covers south St. Petersburg neighborhoods.
Then candidates from at-large Districts 2 and 3, open to the entire county, fielded similar questions.
Some topics proved largely unanimous. All candidates said they opposed allowing teachers to carry firearms. They all praised the district's work with career and trade programs. All talked about their desire for local control over charter schools, and all said that the current model of teacher evaluation, which often ends up measuring teachers based on students they haven't taught firsthand, puts too heavy of a burden on educators alone.
"Out of all the kids I have, I'm only going to be evaluated on two that I actually taught," said Grizzle, who teaches autistic students at Dunedin High School. "I hope my colleagues did a good job."
Moderator Ernest Hooper, a Tampa Bay Times columnist and editor, asked candidates whether they support racially and economically integrated schools, considering research that school choice deepens segregation.
All said that, yes, they support integration, and many went on to say that they support expanded school choice.
Most talked about the issue as being one of transportation and equity, with many desirable magnets clustered in the wealthier northern reaches of Pinellas County — and a high density of high-need students in neighborhood schools.
Matt Stewart, a human resources manager and foster parent, said the district needs to invest in neighborhood schools so that a parent's first instinct isn't to send their child elsewhere. Otherwise, he said, Pinellas has no hope of closing the achievement gap.
He said he'd push the board to get out into the community, meeting parents where they are and getting neighborhoods to rally around their local schools.
Flowers said she plans to advocate for new leadership in Tallahassee to reduce assessments on students, change how teachers are evaluated and ensure the district can invest in culturally inclusive resources.
Some candidates advocated for greater accountability. Carl Zimmermann, a recently retired journalism teacher, said he favors an attendance policy for students. So does Bill Dudley, a retired city councilman and coach of 30 years at Northeast High School, who also said he'd prefer if administrators showed up unannounced to classrooms to "see what's going on."
Asked to name the biggest challenge facing schools today, here's what the candidates said:
- Lisa Cane (District 2): Red tape that keeps teachers from doing their jobs, which will require lobbying to fix.
- Terry Krassner (District 2): State mandates pose the toughest challenge, but school leaders can work to bring staff together.
- Jeff Larsen (District 2): Low morale and high teacher turnover. The climate for teachers needs work, from arbitrary evaluations to lack of mentorship to the way administrators approach student discipline.
- Carl Zimmermann (District 3): The legislature (a round of applause from the audience). “Their main mission is to privatize schools. … I think I can have a tremendous amount of influence lobbying the Senate.”
- Nicole Carr (District 3): Teacher retention and working climate, plus a burdensome amount of student testing at the district level: “We have a responsibility at the local level to not subject our students to so much unnecessary testing.”
- Peggy O’Shea (District 3): State mandates that strip districts of flexibility and local control. “We could do more here if they untie our hands. … The public needs to rise up and tell them what we want.”
- Bill Dudley (District 6): Safety (which he said is being addressed), the achievement gap (“We need to keep going”) and accountability for students and teachers: “How about kids showing up to class when they’re supposed to be there?”
- Lorena Grizzle (District 6): Limited funding because of the limits it puts on schools and teachers.
- Matt Stewart (District 6): The lingering achievement gap, which demands a multi-tiered response with resources primarily directed toward the students most in need.
- Tharius Bethel (District 7): To address the achievement gap and school safety, get families and guardians more involved with their students, perhaps through increased social work.
- Rene Flowers (District 7): Limited funding, which hampers the district’s ability to recruit, retain and pay staff and teachers.
Two candidates from District 7 were not present. Teacher Bilan Joseph could not make it, and teacher Nicholas Wright declined to participate.
Thirteen candidates are competing to fill four seats, a majority of the seven-person board. The primary election is Aug. 28.
The two forums that follow will be held July 30 in the Music Center at SPC's St. Petersburg/Gibbs Campus, 6605 Fifth Ave. N, and Aug. 2 in the Digitorium at SPC's Seminole Campus, 9200 113th St. N. All three events will be held at the same time, and all three are free and open to the public.