Shortly after losing her bid to get a novel, “The Lovely Bones,” restricted in Pinellas County high schools, local Moms for Liberty leader Angela Dubach said she had no plan to file more book challenges.
Having failed in several attempts to sway school district policies and actions, Dubach set her sights on the next election.
“I will not be challenging any more books because I will be busy preparing to flip the school board next year,” she wrote late December on Facebook.
She is not alone in that effort.
Three of seven Pinellas County School Board seats come up for a vote in August, with incumbents Eileen Long and Laura Hine preparing to seek reelection and Carol Cook retiring after six terms. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a leading proponent of the “anti-woke” parent rights movement, has targeted Long and Hine. Some of his most ardent backers have come to see the board as ripe for a rightward turnover.
If they can get candidates they support into two of the three open slots, they would shift the board majority to back their agenda.
They’ve begun coalescing support around three political newcomers — private religious school operator Danielle Marolf against Hine, district high school guidance counselor Erika Picard against Long, and business owner Stacy Geier for Cook’s seat.
Geier, Marolf and Picard said they are not running jointly and that they operate independently.
The three promote nearly identical platforms that echo the Moms for Liberty playbook.
They call for increasing parent control over things such as what children are taught, for example, suggesting that the authority of “unelected bureaucrats” should be reduced. They raise concerns that schools are providing access to inappropriate books and other materials, often including adult and sexual content. They advocate for teaching students more critical thinking skills, intimating that some teachers promote left-wing ideology rather than facts.
In advancing their views, they regularly cheer one another in social media posts. They also share similar endorsements, primarily from within the Republican Party.
Republican State Rep. Berny Jacques, for instance, is backing Geier and Marolf, saying that board member Dawn Peters “needs reinforcement.” Jacques also co-hosted Picard’s campaign kickoff.
Peters, who has found herself in the minority with board member Stephanie Meyer on issues like book challenges and the budget, endorsed Geier. Meanwhile, Peters’ partner, Redington Beach Mayor David Will, supports Marolf.
Picard has snagged endorsements from a broader group, too, including former House Speaker Chris Sprowls.
Florida Faith Foundations, which describes itself as a “leadership group of Pinellas County, Florida Conservative Christian Pastors and Influencers,” has announced its backing of all three candidates. One of the group’s leaders, Nick Champlin of Faith Christian Church in Clearwater, declined via email to discuss its activity in the election, at least for now.
Brent Stancil, pastor of Community Bible Baptist Church in Pinellas Park, explained the activism to his congregation during an October service streamed on YouTube.
“Right now we have three ladies that the group I work with, the Florida Faith Foundations, we’re getting support behind because we would like to flip a very liberal school board and flip them conservatively,” Stancil said.
He noted that while his church provides a school and that many congregants also homeschool, that’s not a reason for sitting out the election.
“There’s hundreds of thousands of kids whose parents don’t send them to a Christian school and don’t homeschool them, and they are getting indoctrinated, not educated,” Stancil said. “We want to do our best to make a difference. I want to find Christians who are willing to throw their hat in the ring and take the beating to stand for Christ in the public forum.”
All three candidates were advertised to attend the group’s “quarterly huddle” in late January, where anti-communist author and conspiracy theorist Trevor Loudon is to be the guest speaker. Picard — who is being advised by more centrist Republican county commissioner Chris Latvala — later pulled out, and has not appeared as often lately with the other two hopefuls.
Long, the District 4 incumbent, said she hoped voters would look past the partisan and religious rhetoric emerging in the campaigns and focus on the work that schools need to do for children.
“School systems should not be political,” the retired teacher said. “People want normalcy back. They want common sense back.”
Board member Hine said she is committed to “strong and excellent schools” for all students in the district, just as she is getting for her own children. A military veteran, she called education as vital to national prosperity as the service.
“When it comes to elections, people will have to look and decide,” Hine said. “I encourage every single voter in this county to pay attention and do their research.”
Through campaign speeches, materials and social media posts, each of the three challengers has worked to appeal to voters who have increasingly viewed public schools through a negative lens.
“They are trying to indoctrinate (children) by destabilizing your families, making parents seem like they are a negative effect on children as opposed to a positive effect. And we know that’s not true,” Geier told the Community Bible Baptist congregation.
She pledged to “bring reinforcement” to the “true conservatives” on the board.
“As myself and the two other ladies running with me take our contests, if we can win, we will flip that board from a 2-5 minority of conservatives to a 5-2 majority,” Geier said. “And we need to do that.”
Speaking to the same church on a different day, Picard and Marolf echoed the sentiment.
Picard said parents’ concerns increased as they saw during the pandemic “what they’re actually teaching” in the schools. She repeated the Moms for Liberty motto that “We don’t co-parent with the government” and said the school board must do more to maintain parental rights.
“I am a mama,” she said. “I want to see the best for them in our schools. Not the school telling me what they have to do.”
In a separate email to the Times, Picard stressed that people pay taxes to ensure schools tend to all children’s educational needs.
“When schools start crossing a line and telling students they can be a cat if they want to and put kitty litter in the room for them, that is a problem,” she said.
Her comment was a reference to widely debunked claims that schools in several states provided cat litter for children who identified as furry animals. The claims were spread by many Republican politicians as they discussed how schools addressed gender identity.
Asked for examples of cat litter in Pinellas schools, Picard responded, “I have no specifics and is debatable if it is actually happening ‘according to the schools’ but it begs the question, when have we gone too far???”
Marolf followed Picard speaking at Community Bible Baptist, saying she is “in this together with Erika and Stacy” to bring more focus on boundaries and freedom to the board. She spoke about her platform, which includes creating a way for parents to anonymously report when a teacher is “preaching woke indoctrination.”
She criticized the district’s discipline policy as too lax, saying it comes from “the left” and ignores a more punitive approach “based in Scripture that says discipline is a good, godly, loving thing to do for a child.”
She also advocated having every student graduate trained for a skill, rather than telling them all to go to college.
“What do we know about our universities?” she continued. “They’re woke, right? That does nobody any good. That just means we’re raising a socialist society. We don’t want to do that.”
Marolf said the candidates face an uphill battle “because there are a lot of leftists here in our county.”
She said her time is now “to stand up and say, No more of this wokeness,” asking congregants to contribute to her campaign.
“I know none of us have a lot of money,” Marolf said. “This is a way we can use our money for the good of the kingdom.”
All Pinellas voters will get to decide the race between Marolf and Hine, which is for a districtwide seat.
The contest between Long and Picard is limited to voters in District 4, which covers Pinellas north of Clearwater, while the battle for Cook’s District 5 post is for voters living in north-central county, including Largo. (See the district map for more details).
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Spotlight on education
The public is invited to a community conversation about the future of Florida public schools on Tuesday, Jan. 30, at the Tampa Theatre, hosted by the Tampa Bay Times. In the second installment of the Spotlight Tampa Bay series, Times journalists will moderate a discussion by experts, followed by a panel featuring students. Tickets are $20; $10 for students. Proceeds benefit the Times’ Journalism Fund. To purchase tickets, click here.