ST. PETERSBURG — Much of the discussion about the open School Board seat representing southern Pinellas County has focused on race.
Voters reliably have sent a Black board member to the table for the past two decades, providing the only racial diversity on the otherwise all-white body. This year, with former St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse seeking the job against veteran teacher Caprice Edmond, there’s a chance the Black representation could end.
Neither Nurse nor Edmond want that to be a factor in the campaign. They say voters should look at where they stand on issues, and assess the experiences they would bring to the board, when making their decision.
“It’s not about race. It’s about qualifications," said Edmond, 33, a science coach at Fairmount Park Elementary School in St. Petersburg.
Edmond has focused on her career spent advocating for children and education. Before becoming a teacher, she worked with foster students and provided mental health support to families.
That inside knowledge of the system will benefit students, families and the community, she contends.
“Being aware of what is going on in the schools is vital,” Edmond said. “I think it’s important that the community have a voice, parents have a voice and, most important, our children have an advocate.”
Nurse, 66, suggested that the board has plenty of educators serving already.
“You need those skills, but I am not sure that’s the only skill you need,” said Nurse, who co-founded Bay Tech Label in 1986.
He touted his past work in business and government as key to knowing how to accomplishing goals while working with often disparate groups. That perspective would guide him, he said, in “turning over rocks” to find budget savings that might be redirected into classroom and student needs.
Both candidates said one of their primary objectives would be to tackle the proficiency gaps among students from different backgrounds, cultures and economic situations. They credited the current administration under superintendent Mike Grego with taking steps to improve performance in the years since the board ended busing, which in many ways re-segregated schools.
More work remains, though. And how they’d go about it differs.
Edmond spoke several times about paying attention to the whole child, a concept that goes beyond basic education.
“If we are not meeting the basic needs of children, we are going to be more challenged as they get older,” she said.
The district must establish more community partnerships for all schools to grow such initiatives as positive behavior support and academic incentives, Edmond explained, while also ensuring students' individual learning requirements are met.
“Educators are equipped to do that,” she said. “They just need the time and the working conditions to make those things happen for children.”
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She also called for increased wraparound services, offered before and after classes, that take care of students' basic needs, plus added nurses and counselors, and more autonomy for school leaders to make decisions.
Nurse said he would take a two-pronged approach to the situation. At the younger ages, he is looking to create partnerships between the school district and area organizations to improve children’s preparations before kindergarten.
“Reading and math are both building block systems,” he said. “If you can’t do the early work, there’s no way you can do the harder work.”
He referred to a preschool that feeds into Melrose Elementary, which has struggled. With city support, the preschool improved its offerings and then Melrose started seeing the effects. That type of action could take place in many areas, he suggested.
For older students, Nurse called for increased focus on career and technical programs, including advising to help young people find paths to success if they don’t intend to attend college. He also wanted to see more apprenticeships available.
“From my perspective, if we caught up the youngest kids and provided a pathway at the other end, that is the biggest thing we could do to erase racial and achievement gaps,” Nurse said.
Both candidates shared the view that the School Board must take a more activist approach to getting things like this done.
“I have heard the term ‘rubber stamp,’” Edmond said. “I was informed that the School Board members can amend the agenda. They just need a second vote. ... I look forward to, as a School Board member, working with the board attorney to see what we can do.”
Nurse said he viewed the board as the connection between the administration and the larger community, including staff and students. If elected, he expected to play the role of bringing the right people together to solve problems.
He said the district might have benefited from a more collaborative model when reviewing its back-to-school plan during the coronavirus pandemic. The administration faced tough choices, he acknowledged, but the way it presented information to teachers and parents was not entirely up front.
“It is possible the board can be more helpful,” he said.
Edmond also saw a need for more transparency and better relations, especially with teachers. The district only loses credibility when it celebrates successes at the expense of talking about realities such as the school-to-prison pipeline, she said.
“The working conditions of the teachers are the learning conditions of our children," she said.
The two hopefuls said that, even though they would be elected to a single-member district, they would represent the entire county. The winner will serve two years to complete the term of Rene Flowers, who resigned to run for County Commission.
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