ST. PETERSBURG — Jay Hebert grabbed the microphone to welcome the audience attending the St. Petersburg Republican Club’s forum last Wednesday for Pinellas County School Board candidates.
Motioning toward the table where six board hopefuls sat, Hebert said the club meant no disrespect to four other announced candidates who were not invited.
“We’re a Republican club,” the group’s treasurer explained, “and we’re focusing on Republican candidates.”
Florida school board races have been nonpartisan affairs since 1998, when voters amended the state constitution to remove party affiliations from the position. Over the past year, though, divides over public education have become more stark, with Floridians across the political spectrum focused on school issues that got little attention in the past.
Attempts to return school board seats to party races fell short in the 2022 legislative session. But that failure hasn’t stopped the parties from working to identify candidates who meet their expectations.
The six candidates at Wednesday’s forum each declared complete support for Florida’s new law limiting what educators can teach about gender identity and sexual orientation, known to its critics as the “don’t say gay” law.
They strongly favored expanding family choices including charter schools and private school vouchers. They opposed what they viewed as overly politicized teachers unions and pledged to uphold conservative values on the board.
“I will stand up against this woke-ism,” said District 3 hopeful Dawn Peters, criticizing such concepts as social-emotional learning and culturally relevant teaching. “Back to basic education.”
Joining her at the candidates’ table were District 2 incumbent Lisa Cane and challengers Kaitlin “New” Noethen and Bronson Oudshoff; District 6 aspirant Stephanie Meyer; and District 7 challenger Maria Solanki.
Meyer suggested that any decline in academic performance could be tied directly to a rise in “all of this other junk in the classroom.” Noethen, meanwhile, contended that the real goal of Democrats has been to use schools to turn children into “woke activists” who will stand up against their parents and said it has to stop.
Within their strong stances, some clear differences emerged.
On school choice, for instance, Solanki said the district should actively encourage more private and charter schools to move into the county, providing transportation and other services to students who take advantage.
“I don’t believe you should be stuck in a poor school because of where you live,” Oudshoff added.
Noethen raised a cautionary note, though, noting that some families cannot take advantage of choices even when they’re offered.
“Pinellas County needs to improve so we are not driving away so many students,” she said.
The candidates also disagreed on the issue of public commenting at board meetings.
Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools
Subscribe to our free Gradebook newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Cane, the only incumbent on the panel, said the public had been misinformed about the board’s decision to streamline its policy. Public comment was not taken away, she said, but the district acted to bring more civility to discussions that had grown heated and sometimes inappropriate.
The amended rule gives the board chairperson authority to interrupt speakers who interfere with the “orderly process of the meeting” or shut down those deemed to be “harassing.” Cane said the changes follow longstanding state law.
Others blasted the board for no longer livestreaming residents speaking about topics that aren’t agenda items.
“I don’t think it matters what Florida statute is,” Oudshoff said, arguing the board and state cannot restrict First Amendment rights.
“Anybody that is speaking at a school board meeting knows it’s public and knows it’s recorded,” Peters added. “They want it out there. Otherwise they wouldn’t be speaking.”
A question about responding to future pandemics also highlighted some differences among the candidates.
Noting that most districts, including Pinellas, were unprepared when COVID-19 struck, Cane called for improvements in online platforms for distance learning in support of classroom instruction. She also said the schools should ensure they have enough activities for children to interact regularly even if separated for health concerns.
Noethen agreed that schools always should be improving, but rejected the idea of focusing on digital lessons.
“Thankfully, Gov. DeSantis said we’re not going to shut down again,” she said.
Peters and Solanki said the schools must focus on keeping schools open while also providing options for families that don’t feel comfortable attending.
“It’s not just one side that gets their rights,” Solanki said.
Meyer and Oudshoff meanwhile discussed more technical issues such as improved sanitary and cleaning efforts.
More forums like this one are expected in the coming months, with both political parties getting involved. In 2018, Cane said, she participated in events hosted by Republicans and Democrats alike. She did not anticipate being invited to all of them again this time around.
Politics are a little more tense these days, Cane said, adding she would share her views with any group that asks.
• • •
Sign up for the Gradebook newsletter!
Every Thursday, get the latest updates on what’s happening in Tampa Bay area schools from Times education reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek. Click here to sign up.