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What are Pinellas schools doing well? Poorly? School Board candidates offer their views.

Three candidates are vying for the District 1 at-large seat.

The primary election is less than a month away. Vote-by-mail ballots already are in hand. The complexion of the Pinellas County School Board could change with the outcomes, as three of the seven seats are up for grabs.

But would the candidates alter things dramatically? Or are they happy with the current trajectory?

We asked them each to tell us in writing where they think the district shines, and where it needs improvement. Today, we offer you the responses as submitted from the three aspirants for at-large District 1, where the incumbent did not seek reelection.

If none receives a majority on Aug. 18, the top two vote-getters would face off again in the November general election. Here’s what they had to say. We’ve provided links to each candidate’s website for you to get more information.

Laura Hine, 45

What are three things the school district does well?

a. Provides education and related services to over 100,000 students on a given day. What I mean by this is that Pinellas County schools as the 27th largest school district in the nation has a significant task of providing education across learning spectrums, across economic spectrums, and across a dense geography. When it comes to strategic scale, they are reaching scale. Could it be better at the tactical – individual school/student – level? I think perhaps so; addressed below.

b. Proactively plans and maintains their physical assets – approximately 140 buildings, or 18M square feet, fleet of busses and vehicles, etc. – without going into comparatively significant debt.

c. Responsive and capable implementors. What I mean by this is that in several recent circumstances when directives change, PCS was able to nimbly and rapidly respond with programs in place. This was true in response to the requirements from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Safety Commission, and response to closing schools for the Coronavirus. It is also consistently true for adapting when charter schools fail and those students need to be rapidly, nimbly and amiably brought back into their public schools.

What are three things you would change about the school district, and why?

a. Focus on data & School grading system. The state has ushered in an era of data over the last 20 years that must be mitigated. That said, our district has met that era and raised it. We must shift this focus on data, and part of that will mean remaking our school grading system. We can. We can come up with our own based on the factors that we believe measure experience and efficacy of education.

b. Teacher autonomy & reviews. We must allow our teachers and their students to thrive in their work, not dictating their minutes and hours in the day. Also, we must handle the teacher qualifications, continued development and reviews in a professional way. I am happy to expand on this further.

c. It is massive. Because it is massive, we have layers of leadership and administration that smaller districts do not have, and therefore added expenses not to mention bureaucracy. I do not have an answer on how/if this can be addressed at this point – our state has county-based school systems, but I do have some questions about layers of bureaucracy and administration. Why is massive a problem? Typically, massive means less nimble. And to serve children, we must be nimble. Let’s figure out how to allow innovation and an appropriate level of autonomy throughout this district.

Stephanie Meyer, 38

What are three things the school district does well?

a. Pinellas County Schools has done a good job of expanding district choice programs through magnet and fundamental schools. However, I believe there is room for improvement in particular, the area of technical programs that promote career readiness and expanding charter school options.

b. Pinellas County is ahead of the COVID-19 crisis particularly because there is already a solid virtual education program in place. Compared to other nearby districts, this provides an established alternative to traditional school for families concerned about returning to the classroom setting in the upcoming school year.

c. Pinellas County has done well with providing advanced placement courses for students interested in earning college credits while attending high school. The district has also recently expanded dual enrollment options for students, which now includes University of Florida in addition to my alma mater, St. Petersburg College.

What are three things you would change about the school district, and why?

a. The success or failure of our schools does not rest solely in the hands of the school board and school system – it is the responsibility of the community as well. More needs to be done to engage the communities in creating programs that help our neighborhood schools thrive, especially in our schools that consistently fail to meet minimum expectations. Some of my ideas are bringing back the Adopt a School Program and implementing mentorship programs for students with local business and municipalities among others. In addition to community engagement, we must find ways to include and encourage parent/guardian involvement in schools. This can be done by offering more opportunities to engage with parents during evening hours, providing incentives through partnerships with local businesses for attending informational sessions and allowing parents ample opportunity to voice their concerns in a safe environment where they feel free to express their ideas about how we can make our schools better.

b. I would like to see the district adopt a “back to the basics” approach when it comes to learning in our schools especially as we return to school with many unknowns regarding COVID-19. We know that we have likely widened the achievement gap despite the best efforts of our teachers and families during the last quarter of the 2019-2020 school year. Now is the time to refocus our efforts away from high stakes testing and get back to instilling a life long love of learning.

c. I would like to see a complete overhaul of the curriculum for core areas of learning. I believe that the decision making process for curriculum is not transparent enough and should focus more on including parents/guardians and teachers in this decision making process.

Tom Topping, 52

What are three things the school district does well?

a. School choice with busing provided. Consistent increase in graduation rates and district grades which means schools are improving on an individual basis as well. In areas where there have been challenges and disappointments, the School Board has a plan to address.

b. The community values the arts programs in Pinellas County Schools. Many of the programs are considered national models of excellence. (Tarpon Springs. Gibbs PCCA.) Referendum dollars to support the arts are an example of Pinellas County taxpayer confidence in the school system and its dedication to the arts.

c. The Referendum has had a positive impact on the Pinellas County Schools. The increased revenue from the referendum that is dedicated to teacher salaries has allowed the district to boast a highly competitive starting salary to help recruit qualified candidates, especially minority candidates to meet the goals of the Bridging the Gap Plan.

What are three things you would change about the school district, and why?

a. The achievement gap for minority and ESE students must be reduced. The “why” for this should be rather obvious but the dedication to equity and access for all students is a significant commitment to diversity and inclusion. It is simply the right thing to do for a community that has been marginalized in the past.

b. Increase opportunities for electives and classes that foster creativity, increase culturally relevant instruction, and improve overall student engagement. As a veteran teacher and trainer, I know that students (as well as adults) engage more in learning when they have an interest and a choice in their studies. They work harder, perform better, and achieve greater results…they learn more! The opportunity to connect more electives to standards-based core classes and instruction, as well as literacy is also a no-brainer.

c. Increase technology for a more modernized way of work that will help students be better prepared for college, career, and life. Students need to be better informed about the academic choices that they have. For instance, we shouldn’t simply offer dual-enrollment and technical college choices to kids without them understanding what it takes to be technically successful in those fields. Counselors within career academies should be providing these as direct services to students.

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