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For 2 Tampa Bay school boards, November races highlight political divide

The candidates will offer contrasting messages, with echoes of themes in the governor’s race.
A sign points to the polling place at St. Petersburg's Roberts Recreation Center, 1246 50th Ave. N, on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022. In Pinellas and Pasco counties, primary voters up three school board races that illustrate the state's political divide.
A sign points to the polling place at St. Petersburg's Roberts Recreation Center, 1246 50th Ave. N, on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022. In Pinellas and Pasco counties, primary voters up three school board races that illustrate the state's political divide. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 24, 2022|Updated Aug. 24, 2022

While several school board candidates celebrated clear victories Tuesday, hopefuls in three Tampa Bay area races steeled themselves for two more months of campaigning.

Each of the three faceoffs headed to the Nov. 8 general election exemplifies the polarized partisanship that lately has marked what previously have been sedate, nonpartisan local affairs.

Pinellas County features two contests that pit conservatives backing Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education agenda against liberals who advocate for a more traditional view of public education — one of whom has the backing of DeSantis rival Charlie Crist. Pasco County has one such race remaining.

Thomas Kennedy, president of the Florida School Boards Association, said it’s not surprising to see the campaigns shaping up this way, given the attention being paid to education policies and governance from state and national politicians.

DeSantis took the unprecedented step of endorsing several candidates across Florida, paying for mailers to support people who he said would advance issues such as expanded school choice and greater parental control over school services. Crist and the Florida Democratic Party soon followed suit, backing their own set of hopefuls.

Kennedy, who serves on the Citrus County board, expressed hope that despite the vast divide over approaches to education, candidates would remain respectful and allow voters to see where they stand in the important nonpartisan matter of educating children.

“Our students need us to be successful,” he said. “It’s not going to work if we don’t.”

The candidates remaining in the Tampa Bay races agreed that the overarching goal must be to do what’s in the best interest of students, parents and educators. They diverge widely in their views of how to get there.

In the Pinellas District 3 countywide race, for instance, candidate Dawn Peters, a personal trainer, said she planned to adhere to her platform. That includes pushing for a return to basics and strictly following new state laws relating to race and gender instruction.

“My message will obviously be different than my opponent,” said Peters, a supporter of the conservative group Moms for Liberty.

Keesha Benson, left, and Dawn Peters are competing for the Pinellas County School Board District 3 seat in the Nov. 8, 2022 general election.
Keesha Benson, left, and Dawn Peters are competing for the Pinellas County School Board District 3 seat in the Nov. 8, 2022 general election. [ Courtesy of the candidates ]

She added that she intended to run a positive campaign, and that even though partisanship comes through in the debate over issues, “that isn’t the key message here. We’re doing it for the children.”

Keesha Benson, an educator and social worker who is running against Peters, said she also planned to stick to her message advocating for a high-quality, equitable education for all children.

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“I never thought that would be a sticking point for people,” Benson said, noting mounting opposition in some areas to the notion of equity in education.

She also eschewed the party politics that have infiltrated school board elections.

“This is a nonpartisan race, and I am the best candidate,” Benson said.

The Pinellas District 6 seat representing south-central county offers a similar dynamic.

That contest pits teacher Stephanie Meyer, a strong backer of the DeSantis agenda, against chemical engineer Brian Martin, who has endorsements from the Florida Democratic Party and its leadership.

Brian Martin, left, and Stephanie Meyer are competing for the Pinellas County School Board District 6 seat in the Nov. 8, 2022 general election.
Brian Martin, left, and Stephanie Meyer are competing for the Pinellas County School Board District 6 seat in the Nov. 8, 2022 general election. [ Courtesy of the candidates ]

Meyer, who fell just short of a majority in the primary, said she believes she has the winning position on the issues by supporting education basics, school choice and parental rights while opposing classroom instruction of “political movements or ideologies” such as LGBTQ lessons.

“Voters are wanting change in our schools,” said Meyer, also a Moms for Liberty supporter. “They do not want our students to be learning politics.”

Martin agreed that politics have no place in the classroom. He referred to a different set of politics, though, suggesting the newest state rules on race, gender and related matters should take a back seat to supporting teachers and students.

“We’ve got a positive, pro-education message,” he said. “I believe public education is a nonpartisan issue. I’m happy to fight for all of us.”

In Pasco, the District 1 race representing east county has DeSantis-endorsed candidate Al Hernandez, a health care executive, facing district graduation enhancement teacher James Washington, who has the backing of Democratic and LGBTQ-affiliated organizations.

“The two of us have very different views,” Washington said, adding that he has not heard Hernandez speak much about issues but “his being endorsed by the governor, you can assume you know where he stands.”

Al Hernandez, left, and James Washington are competing for the Pasco County School Board District 1 seat in the Nov. 8, 2022 general election.
Al Hernandez, left, and James Washington are competing for the Pasco County School Board District 1 seat in the Nov. 8, 2022 general election. [ Courtesy of the candidates ]

Washington said he did not consider Hernandez to be anti-student, but worried that he might be a “rubber stamp for the agenda of the governor” — something Washington strongly opposes and said he would “absolutely not” do himself.

Instead, he called for providing more services to help all students succeed, including finding ways to attract and retain more teachers. He blamed the state’s longtime Republican leadership for creating an atmosphere that has driven educators out of the profession.

Hernandez has said he did not consider endorsements to mean he must support everything his backers want, but rather that they like his positions on the issues.

“Our message of parental control of their child’s education, individualized student focus and improved school safety is clearly resonating with the voters of Pasco County,” he said via text message. “We look forward to continuing to share our message and our vision for the future of Pasco County Schools and we look forward to success this November.”

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