Before first-term incumbent Nicole Carr bowed out of her reelection bid, Keesha Benson and Carl Zimmermann hadn’t given much thought to seeking a spot on the Pinellas County School Board.
Carr’s decision prompted both educators to assess whether the time was right for them to jump in. Dawn Peters, a personal trainer and active school volunteer, had already pre-filed for the at-large District 3 seat, but no one else was stepping forward.
All three now are vying for the spot on the Aug. 23 ballot.
Benson, 41, has led education initiatives such as Thrive by Five since her return to Pinellas County four years ago. A university professor with three children, Benson said she understands and shares working parents’ concerns.
She said it’s critical for the school system to provide a safe, equitable, diverse and accountable education that prepares all youngsters for the real world. The district has disparities, she noted, and the board must help families overcome obstacles.
At the same time, Benson said, the board also must ensure employees feel valued and parents understand their rights, responsibilities and choices within the system. That will require improved transparency from the district, she said, getting “beyond the noise” to focus on children.
“Even if we don’t agree, if we can take our differences and have a civilized conversation and come to some agreement, that’s a win,” Benson said.
Peters, 48, spent a lot of time volunteering in her children’s school before the pandemic forced visitors out of the classrooms — a move she opposed. She began paying more attention to board actions and decided to try to bring a different perspective to the table.
The district needs to get back to academic basics, Peters said. She does not condone ignoring historic truths and supports providing resources to students according to their needs. At the same time, she said, the schools need to leave parents to instill beliefs in their children.
She’s a strong supporter of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education agenda. She also has local concerns, such as providing Pinellas families with better access to the board. Peters wants to resume livestreaming of public comments and to begin streaming board workshops.
“It’s part of our First Amendment right to have that in our meeting on the record,” Peters said.
Zimmermann, 71, placed third in his 2018 bid for the seat. He saw Carr’s departure as a sign to continue his quest to put the district on a path toward more application-based learning, which gets students to solve problems through interactive, realistic exercises. He contended his 33 years as a district teacher make him best qualified in the field.
It may be a monumental task, he said, but “it’s never going to happen if we don’t have someone at the top to steer that ship.”
He called for an anonymous climate survey to help figure out how to improve morale, before the district loses too many more teachers and staff. As a former Democratic state lawmaker, he said he’d use the skills he learned to focus on solutions rather than politics.
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“I address the elements that people are concerned about,” Zimmermann said.
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