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Lerner, other incumbents to stay on Pinellas School Board

Linda Lerner
Published Aug. 27, 2014

Three incumbents kept their seats on the Pinellas County School Board in Tuesday's primary election, while a fourth race will be decided with a runoff in November.

Linda Lerner, 71, the board's longest-serving member, beat a strong challenge from Maureen Ahern, 54, a former journalist and the wife of state Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole. With the win, Lerner earned a seventh term in office.

"I am very, very happy. I was dancing around," Lerner said.

According to preliminary results, Lerner took 55 percent of the vote, while Ahern earned 45 percent.

The nonpartisan race had been decidedly political and more sharply barbed than other School Board races this year. Lerner, a Democrat, hoped her longevity and name recognition would help carry the day, while Ahern, a Republican, urged voters to elect someone new because of what she termed a lack of urgency from Lerner after 24 years in office. She highlighted the county's struggling schools, some of which rank at the bottom of all schools in Florida.

Lerner said the race was among her most difficult. "It was a more serious campaign, a more partisan campaign, but it came out right," she said.

Ahern said she wasn't disappointed by the loss, given that she had a strong showing against a 24-year incumbent. She congratulated Lerner, thanked her volunteers and said she truly believed the campaign had done everything it could.

"I don't think the voters have seen the last of me," she said, adding that she thought it was part of God's plan that she serve.

The election had the potential to shake up a School Board that has been extremely supportive of superintendent Mike Grego. Instead, it did little to change the status quo. With five of seven seats in play this year, two will be decided in November.

Board member Rene Flowers faces a write-in candidate, Irene Olive Cates.

In District 4, from which the board was sure to get a new face because of board member Robin Wikle's midterm resignation, a runoff will be held in November.

Ken Peluso, 57, a retired chiropractor and former chairman of the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas, pulled ahead of Beverley Billiris, 66, a retired teacher and former mayor of Tarpon Springs, while retired teacher John Nygren, 70, was third. But Peluso didn't get enough votes to avoid the runoff.

Peluso got 48 percent of the vote, while Billiris earned 39 percent. Nygren had 13 percent.

Billiris said she anticipated a runoff. "I'm revved up and already strategizing for my next step," she said.

In District 2, an at-large seat, board member Terry Krassner handily beat Chris Tauchnitz, a senior software engineer, for a second term. Krassner, 62, raised twice as much money as Tauchnitz, 46, bringing in $15,955 to his $7,850. Krassner won 71 percent of the vote.

Krassner, who was at home with family and friends, said she was pleased with the results. "I'm just grateful that Pinellas still has confidence in me," she said.

The two offered voters a distinct choice. Krassner, a lifelong educator, said one of the biggest accomplishments of the board was to hire Grego. Tauchnitz said the board needed the voice of a noneducator, and he had concerns about Grego's seeming lack of transparency.

In District 3, another countywide seat, board member Peggy O'Shea defeated Kent Curtis, a St. Petersburg college professor, for a third term on the board. She received 65 percent of the vote.

The race was far from a sure thing. O'Shea, 64, was diagnosed with breast cancer last month, making it difficult for her to campaign or appear at public forums. She raised less money than Curtis, 48, bringing in $8,995 to his $17,438. Curtis also had several key endorsements, including some Pinellas County commissioners and St. Petersburg City Council members.

"I think my opponent was formidable," O'Shea said, adding that Curtis is a nice man who ran a positive race. She credited her win, in part, to name recognition and a history of being accessible.

Curtis said he is grateful for the experience and will run again. He said he knew from the start that he had a tough fight against a "strong incumbent."

"Peggy O'Shea comes with a lot of positives," he said.

Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at Follow @fitz_ly.