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Pinellas School Board race clouded by questions of qualifications and Black representation

The District 7 race for a seat on the School Board has many saying "representation matters."

In 2002, Mary Brown became the first African American elected to the Pinellas County School Board. Eight years later, Lew Williams took over the seat. Then, Rene Flowers.

For nearly 20 years, the District 7 seat on the School Board has been occupied by a Black board member.

But as Flowers leaves the seat two years early to run for Pinellas County Commission, this election may return the School Board to an era when it was all white.

When former St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse entered the race in May, many in the community took notice. Some leaders expressed disappointment in Nurse’s decision to run for the only seat reliably held by a Black School Board member. His announcement on Facebook came a day after the death of George Floyd and just before the nationwide reckoning on race and privilege gained energy.

Nurse — the only white candidate in the race — joined Caprice Edmond and Sharon D. Jackson. Since then, Corey Givens Jr. has entered the field.

As the Aug. 18 election nears, community leaders are assessing the prospect of losing Black representation on the School Board for Black families. In District 7, the city of St. Petersburg is nearly half non-white and more than 20 percent Black or African American according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 2007, the School Board abandoned integration. The result? Increasingly segregated and disproportionately-resourced schools, which placed students of color at a tremendous disadvantage.

A Times investigation in 2015 found that 84 percent of Black elementary school students in Pinellas were failing state exams. And with some students cycling through more than a dozen instructors in an academic year, students of color were faced with immense challenges in the classroom.

Today those failure rates are lower — in the 65 to 70 percent range — but still a major concern to school district officials and the advocacy group Concerned Organization for the Quality Education of Black Students, known as COQEBS.

Once at odds in a lawsuit over the performance of Black students in Pinellas, leaders for the district and COQEBS now meet regularly.

“Disproportionately we still have many Blacks and Hispanics who are not getting an equal quality education,” said Ricardo Davis, the COQEBS president, who has formed an opinion on the District 7 seat after briefly running for it himself.

Given the choices on the ballot, he said, he’d prefer to see a Black person in that seat.

•••

In 2008, when Nurse was first appointed to City Council, he took over the District 6 seat after the late Earnest Williams left to run for Florida House. Nurse then became the first white council member to hold the seat in nearly 30 years. At the time, the move drew criticism by community leaders, much like his bid for School Board has now.

In explaining his bid for the School Board, Nurse said “the question really would be who can be the most effective at advocating for the district,” he said. “I have a long history of being able to get stuff done.”

Nurse said he had a track record on City Council of being able to convince other members to give his district the money necessary to invest in areas that are further behind demonstrates his fitness for the School Board seat.

“You want the most experienced person who has a track record of success even if the color of his skin is white.”

Nurse served two terms on the council and is known in the community for his housing advocacy. He has chaired the Tampa Bay Community Development Corporation as well as St. Pete Neighborhood Home Solutions, and is currently on the board for the local Habitat for Humanity. Today, he owns a printing company, Bay Tech Label.

“To me,” he said, “you want a more diverse range of skills” than the current School Board, which is currently full of members who are or, at one point, were educators.

But Edmond said her background, steeped in education, is more appropriate for the job. “I believe that my candidacy and my qualifications have been overlooked,” she said.

Although she says racial diversity on the School Board is important given the county’s demographics, Edmond is calling on voters to look at her work in the Pinellas County school system and determine their vote from there.

“On a local, state, and national level, I’ve been doing the work,” she said.

A graduate of Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, Edmond has since pursued two master’s degrees in education — one in elementary education and the other in educational leadership. She is currently a teacher with active union membership in the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association and the Florida Education Association. She’s also a delegate for the American Federation of Teachers.

Corey Givens Jr., a 28-year-old also running for the District 7 seat, said not having Black representation on the School Board would be a “travesty.” He says the person who wins the seat must reflect the community and possess a deep understanding of the challenges students of color face in Pinellas County.

“(Karl Nurse) can’t relate to the demographic of students that need representing now,” Givens said.

Givens is a fourth generation St. Petersburg native who attended Lakewood High and is an alumnus of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He is an active member in the St. Petersburg NAACP, the Parent Support for Education Council, the National Education Association, and COQEBS.

In the past, Givens has found himself caught up in campaign controversies — once during his 2012 bid for the same School Board seat after claims regarding multiple higher education degrees proved false and again in 2017 after depositing a $500 campaign check into his personal account.

The remaining District 7 candidate, Jackson, did not respond to requests for comment.

•••

For many in the Black community, representation means more than having an African American in the seat. It also means having someone on the School Board who knows what it’s like to be a Black person living in Pinellas and attending public schools.

That does not mean a well-intentioned white candidate couldn’t represent the interests of Black folks surrounding education, said Davis, the COQEBS president. But it’s “difficult to represent the lived experience of someone Black” in America without that shared experience, he said.

“We need the support of whites to make progress,” Davis said, “but we also need diversity and inclusion.”

During a virtual candidate forum hosted by the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club last month, Florida House District 70 candidates emphasized the importance of diversity on the School Board.

“Representation across the board and at every intersection, it matters,” said Michele Rayner, one of four candidates running to represent the state legislative district that covers the southern end of St. Petersburg. “There is value in having diversity, not just based on race but based on the lived experience.”

Nick Wright, who’s president of the St. Petersburg NAACP and ran against Flowers for the District 7 seat two years ago, says although Nurse may have been a good City Council member, any of the three African American candidates “would absolutely be a better fit for this district,” not only because of racial representation for local families but because of their backgrounds in education.

Not having African American representation on the School Board may put Black students at even greater disadvantage in the Pinellas County school system, said Wright.

Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, says he’s more concerned with “outcomes and measurables” than the race of the person who might take office. With disproportionate funding going to predominantly Black schools and an enduring school-to-prison pipeline in the county, Newton says he’s unsure considering skin color alone is going to change the quality of education.

“If color was going to fix it, then it would’ve been fixed,” he said.

Flowers couldn’t be reached for comment.

•••

It’s important for Black students to see people of color at the table where decisions are made, said Davis, the COQEBS leader.

“Seeing people that look like me up there, it is rare,” said Amina Salaam, a 17-year-old Gibbs High student. The idea that the School Board may lose minority representation “is defeating” and “can make you feel helpless,” Salaam said.

Others, like 16-year-old Yamira Patterson, echo local politicians who say both race and the candidates’ positions on issues will be important as voters weigh in.

Still, “the face behind the issues does matter,” added Patterson, a senior at St. Petersburg High who recently helped sponsor a petition aimed at fighting racism in Pinellas schools. “We need proper representation from marginalized communities.”

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