LARGO — Voters in Pinellas County are being asked to choose between two parents, both novice politicians, vying for a countywide seat on the School Board.
At first glance, Laura Hine and Stephanie Meyer appear very much alike. They’re close in age, each with two school-age children. Both say the schools give too many high stakes tests and, for the most part, approve of the way the district has handled the coronavirus crisis.
But the support they are receiving points to a sharp divide along partisan and ideological lines.
Meyer, who was educated at evangelist Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and sends her children to Keswick Christian School, is emerging as the candidate of choice for conservative organizations.
Hine, a U.S. Navy veteran who is executive director of the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg, has locked up endorsements from the local Democratic leadership.
The race is nonpartisan, and both candidates were reluctant in interviews to be typecast.
“I would characterize myself as an American who recognizes the opportunity for us to harness and revolutionize education, as that can actually impact our future,” said Hine, 45.
Meyer, 38, says it should not matter that her children are in a Christian school, and that she teaches civics there as well.
“I was educated in our public school system,” said Meyer, who went to Tyrone Elementary, Tyrone Middle and Hollins High. She also pointed out that she attended St. Petersburg College before transferring to Liberty.
“I am the daughter of a 34-year veteran teacher. I believe that education is truly the single most important component of our community, of a thriving community. I’m not one of these people who only operates within my bubble.”
The winner on Nov. 3 will replace Joanne Lentino, who decided this year not to seek a second term.
Both have weathered the challenges of getting their message out at a time when public gatherings are discouraged and they cannot even shake voters' hands.
And both are being hit with with questions they don’t like to answer.
Meyer, in questionnaires and campaign materials, has said she wants instruction to be fact-based and not biased. “Many parents have expressed concern about some of the materials that have been taught in our schools,” she said.
When asked for examples, she refused to give any. “I don’t think this is something that parents have been quiet about," she said, adding that examples can be found on social media. “This information is out there. It is out there for the public to see. I’ll leave it at that,” she said.
For Hine, there is the matter of her political affiliation. After 20 years as a registered Republican, she changed her registration to No Party Affiliation.
She did not want to go into specifics about why. “It’s an NPA race," she said of the School Board election. "I have really tried to stick with that. I believe that the appropriate thing to do is to represent all people. I truly believe that the way forward is for us to all recognize that we are all Americans.”
Republican and conservative organizations are donating thousands of dollars to Meyer. These donations include a $1,788.32 check from the Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee.
Hine, aware of that trend, said she hopes voters of both parties will “look at the candidates. Look at our qualifications and our experience and the commitments that we made.”
In her case, those accomplishments include a community support organization for North Shore Elementary, a high-poverty school in St. Petersburg that had “D” grades from the state in 2013 and 2014, when Hine was looking around for a school for her young children.
She and other parents established Friends of North Shore to get neighborhood families interested and involved in the school, which now fluctuates between a B and a C. She held meetings at her home, organized public forums at the school, served as PTA president and helped create an after-school program.
She has received endorsements from prominent Democrats, including School Board member Rene Flowers, who recently won a seat on the Pinellas County Commission, and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.
“They are people who are currently in leadership positions and have been in leadership positions while I am doing the work," Hine said. "It’s not because they’re Democrats that they are endorsing me. It’s because I have shown up — in our city, in our schools, in our county, in Tallahassee.”
Meyer, in her camp, has the Christian Voters Coalition, incoming Florida House speaker Chris Sprowls' campaign; and a $1,000 donation from John Kirtley, the venture capitalist who was behind the state tax-credit scholarship program that today helps thousands of Florida students attend private schools.
School choice is an important issue for both candidates.
As Meyer sees it, tax dollars come from all of the taxpayers, not just those who send their children to district-run schools.
“I believe that parents should be the primary driver in the decision-making process of what education looks like and what education is appropriate for their child,” she said.
“There are so many instances where our public schools are not able to give our children the tools and the resources that they need in order to succeed."
Meyer does not believe the popularity of vouchers is a bad thing. “This is where education is heading and this is what parents want,” she said.
Hine said she is not against giving families many choices, a menu that in Pinellas includes fundamental schools as well.
But, she noted, Article 9 of the Florida Constitution requires the state to provide a “high quality system of free public schools,” and those schools must be protected even as families consider other options.
“What is my goal?” she asked. “It’s for children and families not to feel like they need to flee their public school.”