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Linda Lerner steps away after 28 years on the Pinellas School Board. ‘I wanted to make things better for everybody’

Pinellas County School Board member Linda Lerner says it will be an emotional moment Tuesday when she steps away from her post after a career spanning seven terms over 28 years. But she plans to stay active in civic affairs. "It's my life, community involvement," she said. "I was never going to go away. There's still lots to do." [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times]
Pinellas County School Board member Linda Lerner says it will be an emotional moment Tuesday when she steps away from her post after a career spanning seven terms over 28 years. But she plans to stay active in civic affairs. "It's my life, community involvement," she said. "I was never going to go away. There's still lots to do." [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Nov. 12, 2018

Linda Lerner, one of Florida's longest-serving school officials with nearly three decades on the Pinellas County School Board, will step down Tuesday, leaving her seat for one of three new members elected last week.

The decision was difficult, Lerner said, and that feeling is magnified now as two other members are set to depart at the same time, significantly changing the makeup of the seven-person board.

But Lerner doesn't plan disappear from schools completely, she said, and that softens the stresses of change.

"It's my life, community involvement," she said in an interview. "I was never going to go away. There's still lots to do."

Lerner's long-held District 6 seat, which covers parts of Largo, Pinellas Park, Seminole and the south Gulf Beaches, will be filled by Bill Dudley, a retired teacher and coach at St. Petersburg's Northeast High School. He narrowly defeated Matt Stewart, who Lerner endorsed when she announced her retirement in April.

Also leaving the board are Terry Krassner, who lost her bid for reelection to the District 2 seat in the March primary election, and Peggy O'Shea, who lost a runoff for the District 3 seat last week. Newly elected members Lisa Cane, a performing arts professional, and former Pinellas schools employee Nicole Carr will replace them Nov. 20.

"I keep counting the days," said Lerner, 75. "It's going to be an emotional board meeting."

Lerner pictured in 1983, just a few years before she first ran for School Board. She previously was a teacher and counselor, and director of education support services at the Resource Center for Women. “I was an advocate before on the outside, and I will be again,” she said last week. [Times (1983)]
Lerner pictured in 1983, just a few years before she first ran for School Board. She previously was a teacher and counselor, and director of education support services at the Resource Center for Women. “I was an advocate before on the outside, and I will be again,” she said last week. [Times (1983)]
• • •

Fellow educators say they'll remember Lerner's fierce advocacy and unwavering opinions. Those qualities are what jump-started her career on the School Board in 1990, when races were partisan and she was one of two Democrats elected to what had been an all-Republican board.

Since then, she's carried out her work in the spirit of a Jewish phrase: "Tikkun olam." Its meaning connects kindness to repairing brokenness in the world, she said.

Fueled by community support, Lerner has been a voice for many through the years. She never worried about casting a sole dissenting vote or sharing an unpopular opinion, if it's what she believed was right, she said.

"When I felt strongly about something and it went with my values, I never had trouble advocating," she added. "I wanted to make things better for everybody, because, to me, it was my job to always consider everyone in the district, all our kids."

Leading up to her first election, Lerner successfully lobbied officials at the time to end disciplinary paddling in Pinellas schools. Those interactions revealed shortfalls in the School Board's work, she said, and pushed her to try for a seat.

Along with fighting for more workshops and better public access to board meetings once she was elected, Lerner was an early advocate for LGBTQ rights in schools. She spoke openly to raise awareness about the AIDS epidemic — supporting in 1994 the district's distribution of sex education textbook covers — and was the first School Board member to say the word "gay" during a meeting, she said.

In 1998, a group organized by a local minister packed the boardroom to rally against a gay support group at Largo High. Soon after, Lerner — who has two sons, including one who is gay — voiced one of four votes that made Pinellas one of the first districts in Florida to add sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination policy.

"She is a bulldog for what she believes in," said Andrea Messina, director of the Florida School Boards Association. "Not a lot of people have the courage to stand by their convictions when people disagree, but Linda does."

Lerner dances as promising results come in on election night in 2014. She was at home with, left to right, son Joshua, husband Phillip and Anastasia Buyanovska, the mother of Joshua's wife. Phillip, who died in 2017, was a fixture in all of her campaigns. A race for reelection without him this year wouldn’t have been the same, Lerner said. [Times (2014)]
Lerner dances as promising results come in on election night in 2014. She was at home with, left to right, son Joshua, husband Phillip and Anastasia Buyanovska, the mother of Joshua’s wife. Phillip, who died in 2017, was a fixture in all of her campaigns. A race for reelection without him this year wouldn’t have been the same, Lerner said. [Times (2014)]
• • •

Much has changed in Lerner's time on the School Board. In her first year, officials didn't even have a fax machine. Now, technology and data surround the district's work.

Still, Lerner has tried to inform her decisions by talking to "people in the trenches." Often, she'd spend hours at a school, visiting classrooms and talking with the principal. Sometimes, a teacher would stop her at the supermarket, so she would pull out paper and a pen to take notes on their concerns, she said.

"Linda has always been good at making sure policies line up with the needs in our community," said School Board Chairwoman Rene Flowers, elected in 2012. "When you talk about historical perspective, she has it."

Lerner's institutional knowledge of the school system gives fellow officials insight on where the district has come from, and that helps board members make decisions about where it might go, Flowers said.

Hired six years ago, Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego has never known the board without Lerner. Her friendship and candid conversations, he said, are what he will miss most.

"There hasn't been one day or one second where I felt that I didn't have her total support," Grego said. "She is a School Board member for all the right reasons, and she serves the right way."

In her final campaign in 2014, Lerner, right, debated challenger Maureen Ahern during a campaign forum at St. Petersburg College. [Times (2014)]
In her final campaign in 2014, Lerner, right, debated challenger Maureen Ahern during a campaign forum at St. Petersburg College. [Times (2014)]
• • •

Had Lerner run for an eighth term this year, it would have been her first campaign without her husband, Phillip, who died in June 2017.

Every four years during election time, he flew into action as her campaign treasurer and photographer. Together, they crafted buttons and waved signs. A race for reelection without him this year wouldn't have been the same, Lerner said.

"I had an in-house campaign operative," she remembered. "He was always there to help me win elections and continue to have the privilege of being a School Board member."

In retirement, Lerner said she plans to do more exercising and spend more time with friends. She hopes to meet with Dudley, Cane and Carr, the newly elected officials, too.

"I believe that she is going to continue being a voice in the community and a voice for students," Flowers said. "I know we are going to see her around."

Lerner will keep her spot on the Pinellas Education Foundation's Stavros Career Education Committee, which works to boost technical and job-focused programs for Pinellas students. That way, she said, there's still a reason to visit schools.

"I was an advocate before on the outside, and I will be again," she said. "It's much easier for me to step aside knowing that I still will have the ability to go into the schools and serve a purpose."

Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.