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  1. Education

Flowers faces challenger for School Board seat in struggling District 7

The county is carved up into seven pieces, and on the Pinellas School Board, no seat serves a more challenging area than District 7. Home to the elementary school with the lowest reading scores in Florida, District 7 also has the state's second-lowest performing school, as well as the sixth, the 16th and 22nd.

It's a serious job, and now two natives of the district are fighting to represent it.

Irene Olive Cates is running as a write-in candidate against incumbent Rene Flowers in a race to be decided Nov. 4 by District 7 voters.

Flowers, 49, was elected to the board in November 2012 after the death of member Lew Williams. A graduate of Dixie Hollins High School and Eckerd College, she has been chairwoman of the St. Petersburg City Council and president of the Florida League of Cities. She also has served on several local committees concerning transit, housing and people of color.

Cates, 31, is a graduate of Boca Ciega High and Orlando's Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. She is a small-business consultant and runs a nonprofit group with her brother called Cates Enterprises Movement Change.

The group focuses on literacy, education and issues surrounding homelessness. As an example of their work, Cates said she and her brother raised money for a Lakewood High student who wanted to go on a club trip to Europe. They did not raise enough, however, and the girl could not go.

"It still didn't stop us from putting our best foot forward and helping," Cates said.

She said her first priority would be to change school curriculum away from the Common Core, which she says was "interjected into the school system prematurely" and has been "negatively affecting our children's education and how they developmentally process information." She said it "needs to be tweaked."

When told during an interview that the state, not the School Board, requires the use of Common Core and sets the timeline for implementation, Cates said she knew that. "I want to be that School Board member who deals not just with what's going on locally. I want to deal with what's going on in Tallahassee," she said.

Cates said she also wants to change the curriculum to require that math, language arts, science and social studies lessons be taught in school gardens, which she wants on every campus. When reminded that Pinellas does not create the curriculum, Cates said the district could require schools to implement the current curriculum in a garden.

Asked how she differs from Flowers, Cates said, "I see myself being a person that is very visible. I see myself being a person that is very accessible and one that will drop anything for the children."

Flowers has been a vocal member of the School Board on two recent high-profile issues. She asked school administrators to reconsider the purchase of 28 M-16 assault rifles that the school district police force acquired from a federal surplus program. Last week, schools police Chief Rick Stelljes told superintendent Mike Grego that he had decided it was best to return the weapons.

Cates was not familiar with the issue but said, "Guns don't kill people. People kill people," and that was a reason to elect responsible people to the right posts.

Flowers also told school staffers to put the district's volunteer policy on the board's agenda after learning that parents convicted of felonies for nonviolent, nonsexual offenses often were forbidden from volunteering at their children's schools. The district's legal team is re-examining that policy.

The incumbent also is pushing for School Board meetings to be held at locations throughout the county so parents, teachers and others can more easily attend. This "floating" model is used by St. Petersburg College.

Flowers supports the recent effort to put psychologists and teaching assistants in the five St. Petersburg schools that rank among the lowest in the state. The School Board has been pushing for more attention to these schools, she said.

"It wasn't just Dr. Grego who said let's implement (these changes)," Flowers said. "It wasn't just Dr. Grego who said, let's improve the data at these schools."

If re-elected, Flowers said she would like to see more career and technical options, such as hairdressing, in St. Petersburg high schools. "Look at how much students are paying to go to Aveda just for the barbering piece," she said. "You can make a lot of money in hair."

She also would like to see the journalism program at Lakewood High expanded to other schools, explaining that local employers want to hire people with writing skills: "They want to see, can you write, can you speak the King James English?"

Cates did not pay the candidate qualifying fee or submit petitions to get her name on the ballot. So on Nov. 4, Flowers' name will be on the ballot, while those wishing to vote for Cates will need to write in her name.

Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. Follow @lisagartner.

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