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Veteran Pinellas School Board member wins re-election without a vote

Another incumbent draws a last-minute challenge. Two vacant seats draw plenty of competition.

Pinellas County School Board member Carol Cook is headed back to the dais for another four-year term, after no one challenged her reelection bid in the 2020 campaign.

Fellow incumbent Eileen Long, who appeared on track to an unopposed candidacy, received a last-minute challenge from frequent School Board hopeful Chris Hardman, a teacher who also ran in 2006, 2008 and 2016.

The departures of incumbents Joanne Lentino and Rene Flowers, meanwhile, left plenty of room for new faces on the board.

Three hopefuls for Lentino’s District 1 at-large seat qualified for the Aug. 18 ballot. And five candidates jumped into the fray to seek Flowers’ District 7 post representing some of the county’s poorest communities.

Vying for the District 1 spot are parent activist Laura Hine, private school teacher Stephanie Meyer and retired educator Tom Topping.

Competing for the District 7 office are Ricardo “Ric” Davis, president of Concerned Organization for the Quality Education of Black Students; Fairmount Elementary science coach Caprice Edmond; Pinellas County Job Corps liaison Corey Givens Jr., retired principal Sharon Jackson and former St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse.

Cook said she was gratified to have continued community support that allowed her to return to the board without opposition.

Poised for a sixth term on the board, Cook at one point hinted that she might not come back. But after Lentino and Flowers announced their retirements, she saw that only one board member might have more than two years’ experience if she left too. And that’s if Long wins.

As a leadership development trainer for the Florida School Boards Association, Cook said she saw the need for some stability and institutional memory. So she decided to remain in order to help steer the board as more members gain their foothold.

“We’re on a good trajectory. I want to make sure we continue,” Cook said, adding she hopes to see the district reach its goals of closing the achievement gap and improving graduation rates before she leaves.

Long, a retired teacher seeking her second term, said she first ran for the board four years ago because of her knowledge and passion about education. She said she still wants to work on improving teacher-student relationships as a way to boost achievement, among many issues.

“We’re on our way in Pinellas County, but there’s more work to do,” Long said. “I want to be a part of that.”

Hardman could not be reached for comment.

Many of the candidates hoping to become the board’s newcomers agreed that the district must see its academic performance make strides forward, and that it must do so in an equitable and efficient way.

The District 1 hopefuls contended that accomplishing those aims will take tough decision-making. Each touted their own background as a credential for deserving the seat.

“Education and where it’s headed has never been more important,” said Topping, who has worked as a teacher, basketball coach, assistant principal and human resources specialist. “We’ve never needed bold leaders on our School Board more than now.”

Hine, a parent and school activist who runs the James Museum of Western Wildlife Art, pointed to her military experience and management of major construction projects and budgets as setting her apart.

“My experience in the world is definitely distinguishable,” she said, adding, “We have to have excellent public education for everyone and not just the people who win the (choice) lottery.”

Meyer could not be reached for comment.

The District 7 candidates also lean on their bona fides as they angle for the board seat that carries the added weight of representing the county’s largest minority population. It lately has been viewed as the district with the best chance of placing a person of color on the mostly white board — perhaps a critical issue as schools grapple with the racial equity issues after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Four of the five declared aspirants are black.

Edmond, a science coach at Fairmount Park Elementary, came into education after working with youth in foster care. She said the board must have commitment to meet all children’s needs, and some of the policies need attention.

“The best way for our schools to get equitable funding and support is from the top down,” Edmond said. “I want our schools to be better for our students. I see the ins and outs of what is going on."

Davis, a longtime advocate for equity in education, said his goal in running is to ensure the work continues toward eliminating disparities in achievement among all student groups. He said his years spent working on the issue, and his ability to collaborate with others toward reaching agreements, can help.

“There are longstanding racial equity issues that we need to bring real-life solutions to,” he said. “I’m hoping this period provides an opportunity where we can make some advances.”

Jackson, a retired principal and teacher of more than 30 years, said her lifelong dedication to education and knowledge of the system puts her in a strong position to make a difference.

“My slogan is, students first, excellence and equity, and engagement focused,” Jackson said. “There are challenges, but I think there are opportunities, too.”

Nurse is the sole white candidate in the field. He does not have an educator background, but he reeled off a list of school-related endeavors he’s been involved with dating back to the 1970s.

He argued that his time on the City Council representing the same general communities, plus his work in the business community, give him a leg up.

“I am familiar with the challenges of budget strain. I expect that is what is going to happen,” he said. “Somebody should be at the table helping to separate the wants from the needs.”

Givens could not be reached for comment.

If no candidate receives a majority in the August 18 nonpartisan primary, the top two vote-getters will face off in the Nov. 3 general election.

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