Three school-based professionals — two teachers and a violence prevention specialist — are challenging the incumbent and current chairwoman in Pinellas County’s crowded District 7 School Board race.
All four candidates have well-defined views on how to help students who attend schools in the single-member district, which covers St. Petersburg’s Midtown area and surrounding neighborhoods. The schools are among those with the lowest achievement scores and highest poverty rates in the county.
Rene Flowers, a St. Petersburg native first elected to the board in 2012 to finish the term of a member who died in office, believes the district has made great strides in addressing challenges in the area and is eager to serve for another four years.
"When I took on this role, I wanted to focus on enhancing cultural diversity in the classroom to address our diverse student population," said Flowers, 53. "I’d like to keep working on that and on making sure we have a mentor for every student."
Districtwide, Flowers’ platform includes higher salaries for teachers and support professionals, a more clear-headed approach to high-stakes testing and a continued focus on school safety, including frequent school drills and enhanced mental health services.
Flowers also is concerned about what she sees as the state Legislature’s intrusion on home rule, which she says prevents local school boards from making decisions for their communities, and a lack of funding to support public schools.
"We’re not asking for the Cadillac plan," she said. "We’re just asking for enough money to operate our schools effectively and efficiently."
Flowers points to her experience as a member of the St. Petersburg City Council from 1999 to 2008 and her years as a corporate training manager for Gulf Coast Jewish Services as examples of her ability to collaborate with diverse groups, which she sees as a necessary ingredient for moving the district forward.
Tharius Keith Bethel decided to jump into the District 7 race because the board, he says, is in need of fresh ideas.
Bethel, 37, a Miami native, moved to the Tampa Bay area in 2000 after a stint in the Air Force. Nearly two decades of experience working with students in various settings from the Pinellas County Juvenile Detention Center to his current job as a violence prevention specialist at John Hopkins Middle School have convinced him the district can do more to help young people.
"I see some of our students today struggling with the same things I struggled with years ago," he said. "The way the curriculum is set up and the opportunities we’re offering young people is limited for the world we live in."
Among his priorities as a School Board member would be ensuring that students are classified properly so they can be placed in the educational setting that will best suit their needs. He also would work to expand career technical education for students beginning in middle school and would reach out to families to make sure they’re aware of discipline expectations for their children.
Overall, he sees a lack of support for teachers as the district’s biggest challenge.
"It’s important that we give teachers everything they need to engage students," he said. "Once students get a bad sense of things, the classroom starts to fall apart."
Bilan Joseph, who recently returned to her native St. Petersburg to teach at Azalea Middle School after a decade teaching in north central Florida, wants to serve on the School Board as a way of repaying the community that supported her when she was growing up.
She also wants to assist struggling students beyond those in her classroom, especially those who are reading significantly below grade level.
"Even at the school administrative level there’s so much red tape to cut through," she said. "I feel the place I can have the greatest impact on how students are being educated is at the school board level."
Joseph, 34, and the mother of three young children, considers safety the district’s biggest challenge. She would advocate for metal detectors at key entry points and additional resources for the district’s mental health programs.
Also high on her priority list is equal allocation of resources across the district, with increased attention on south county schools, and a more innovative approach to classroom technology that would put a laptop or tablet in the hands of every student.
"I feel that Pinellas County is behind the curve compared to other districts in the state," she said. "I want to make sure our students are able to think for themselves and to solve problems, to do more than just sit for a test."
Nicholas Wright decided to run for the District 7 seat after observing what he considers a lack of communication and an all-around disconnect between the School Board and teachers and parents.
"Our board members do not visit schools on a regular basis," he said at a recent candidate forum. "They do not have their fingers on the pulse of what’s happening."
Wright, 65, left a job in technology and finance 13 years ago to become a career and technical education teacher at Gibbs High School. A 28-year resident of Pinellas County, he now teaches technology to middle school students at Lealman Innovation Academy.
To assist struggling students and close the achievement gap, he would beef up career education programs and expand community and private-public partnerships. He also would focus on what he calls the "engagement factor" to keep students interested in school and on track for graduation.
To better engage families and improve communication, Wright would advocate holding board meetings in north, mid and south county. He also would create parent forums where families could meet regularly with teachers.
He stands firm on the subject of charter schools, saying his "first act" would be to work with legislators to overturn a mandate that requires school districts to share with charter schools money designated for construction and maintenance.
So far, Flowers leads the candidates in fundraising with $14,577, of which she has spent $4,315. Wright has raised $4,217 and has spent $3,244. Joseph has raised $3,078 and has spent $2,314, and Bethel has raised $1,815 and has spent $1,767.
Candidates in the District 7 race will appear on the Aug. 28 primary ballot. If no candidate takes more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote getters will head to a runoff.
Early voting will be held from Aug. 18-26.