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For Tampa Bay’s new school board members, the campaign ends and work begins

The transition doesn’t always come easily, veteran board members say.
The names of two new school board members soon will be added to this sign outside the Pinellas County school district headquarters in Largo. The hard work of becoming effective in the job comes next, veteran board members said.
The names of two new school board members soon will be added to this sign outside the Pinellas County school district headquarters in Largo. The hard work of becoming effective in the job comes next, veteran board members said. [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]
Published Nov. 9

With partisanship bubbling in the background, this year’s Florida school board races often grew bitter.

Supporters of Pinellas County’s two winning candidates sent out a last-minute mailer accusing their opponents of wanting to allow drag shows in schools and place obscene books in elementary students’ hands.

Opposing camps fired back with denials and attacks of their own. The two conservative candidates, Dawn Peters and Stephanie Meyer, had been hateful and conspiracy minded, they said.

Now the pair, both supported by the right-leaning Moms for Liberty group, face the task of governing instead of running. No matter your politics, it’s not an easy adjustment.

“There’s a big difference between how you campaign and the latitude you’re given as one of a seven-member board,” said retiring Pinellas school board member Nicole Carr.

Related: Pinellas voters favor conservative candidates for commission, school board

Accomplishing everything you pledged to do on the campaign trail isn’t always possible, said Carr, who served one term.

“There is so much already happening within the district,” she noted. “You may have something you really thought should happen, but not everyone agrees and they have valid points, too. What you initially thought you want to accomplish may change as you learn more about what is happening.”

Stephanie Meyer exits Starkey Road Baptist Church with her family after casting her vote during the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Largo. She won a seat on the Pinellas County School Board.
Stephanie Meyer exits Starkey Road Baptist Church with her family after casting her vote during the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Largo. She won a seat on the Pinellas County School Board. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Carol Cook, who has served on the Pinellas board for 22 years, said it helps new board members to attend trainings that explain their role, so they can be effective.

“A lot of people come in thinking they will be able to tell schools what to do,” said Cook, who leads training sessions for the Florida School Boards Association.

The art of compromise is key, she added, noting the current board must make its newest members feel welcome, too.

“We can disagree on what’s best and have a conversation. And then majority rules,” Cook said.

Carr said she learned that lesson with her annual effort to have the schools close for Veterans Day.

“It wasn’t going to work with everyone saying ‘no’ and just one board member saying it,” Carr said. “However, because I kept bringing it up... it moved a little bit.”

Now the district has more explicit direction for schools to teach about the importance of the day while students are there, she said.

Meyer, who won the District 6 seat running on a “parents rights” platform, said she harbored no illusions about being able to force her views onto the district.

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“You deal with it in the same way you would deal with differences in a business setting,” Meyer said, explaining she would do her best to convince others of her position. “I want to get in there and get to know my colleagues, work alongside them to the best of my ability.”

She expected the board members will have plenty of areas where they will agree. At the same time, she said, parents are fed up with the same ideas they’ve seen coming from the board in the past, and members will have to see the need for change.

“I think the other board members are going to have to get on board with some of these things that the people want,” such as a back-to-basics education that removes opinion from instruction, Meyer said.

She said she looked forward to serving families who opposed her candidacy, as well.

Tammy Kaplan, a leader of Pinellas Parents Advocating for Public Schools, said she hoped that would be the case. Kaplan supported candidate Brian Martin against Meyer, and said the campaign left many people with hard feelings.

She said that Meyer and Peters, who won the countywide District 3 seat, had narrow victories that do not translate to a mandate.

“We have to find a way to communicate together,” Kaplan said. “There needs to be some measure on their part to reach out, let (people) know they are there to represent them and will listen.”

She expected her group to monitor the board, and to reach out to see how the opposing forces can work on common goals for children.

Dawn Peters
Dawn Peters [ Courtesy of Dawn Peters ]

Peters, who was criticized during the campaign over past ties with the QAnon conspiracy group, did not respond to requests for comment.

Collaboration is critical for long-term success, retiring Pasco County board member Allen Altman said during his final meeting Tuesday after 16 years on the board. During his farewell speech, Altman talked about how any accomplishments he achieved came because of the help and support he found in the district and community.

He thanked secretaries who “kept me from embarrassing myself” and praised administrators for their hard work and leadership. He discussed the importance of having the community ask you to serve, rather than running because of ego.

Newly elected Pasco board member Al Hernandez, who has served as a trustee at Pasco-Hernando State College, said he understood the point. Coming into a new board, he said, requires listening and learning.

“When the time is right, you can speak to it,” he said.

But with terms lasting four years, and new 12-year term limits in place, board members also should be able to hit the ground running, Meyer said. “I’m ready to get to work on Day 1.”

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