Voters in Hillsborough and Pinellas on Tuesday sent a clear message they are concerned about the direction of their local schools and want improvements. They embraced candidates who campaigned for more urgency in helping struggling schools and narrowing the achievement gap, and they weren't kind to incumbents or the biggest fundraisers. In both counties there will be school board runoff elections in November, and voters should pay close attention in the next two months to the candidates best equipped to meet the significant challenges facing both school districts.
In Pinellas, incumbent School Board member Ken Peluso lost his seat and longtime incumbent Carol Cook was forced into a runoff. Eileen Long, a veteran educator with a background in special education, defeated Peluso in District 4. In District 5, Eliseo Santana, a retired civilian Sheriff's Office supervisor, advanced to a runoff against Cook, who is seeking her fifth term. Both Long and Santana have pushed for greater outreach to parents and criticized the School Board for its failure to devote the resources and attention necessary to improve struggling schools. Those failures were highlighted by the Tampa Bay Times investigation "Failure Factories," which examined how five high-poverty, high-minority elementary schools in south St. Petersburg became among the worst in the state. Those schools were left behind as they were resegregated, and the district's failure to send additional staff and money to them over the years created what U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called a "man-made disaster.'' The school district has brought in new principals, teachers and resources — but those were not particular priorities for either Peluso or Cook.
Long will be joined by at least one other new face on the Pinellas School Board. Joanne Lentino, a former St. Pete Beach teacher, and Matt Stewart, a deputy director for the Hillsborough elections office, advanced to a November runoff for the open countywide District 1 seat. Both are strong candidates who would bring new energy and a fresh perspective to a board that is too accommodating to superintendent Mike Grego.
In Hillsborough, ideas — not money — proved the difference, as voters looked beyond big-money campaigns to favor candidates instead who offered substantive solutions for improving the most challenging schools.
First-time candidate Tamara Shamburger led the five-person field to represent the heavily minority neighborhoods of east and central Tampa. She advanced to the runoff despite being heavily outspent, running a grassroots campaign that called for more mentoring programs and new incentives for attracting quality teachers to the struggling schools in District 5. She proved a breath of fresh air, a consensus-builder and a candidate intent on making her voice heard.
In the countywide race for the District 7 seat, another first-time candidate, Cathy James, who was also heavily outspent, led an eight-person field and advanced to a runoff with her call for a more holistic approach for improving the educational environment. James managed to cut through the fog of a crowded campaign with the strength of her strong support for public schools and her commitment to provide equal opportunities for all students. Her serious agenda spoke to the expectations voters have in the country's eighth-largest school system.
Tuesday's election in Hillsborough and Pinellas had other high points. In Hillsborough, Republican voters rejected Jim Norman's attempt to rehabilitate his political career and rejoin the County Commission by strongly backing challenger Tim Schock. And Democrats gave a lopsided win to incumbent Pat Frank in the race for court clerk and rejected the negative campaigning by outgoing Commissioner Kevin Beckner. In Pinellas, Republicans effectively elected first-time candidate Mike Twitty as Pinellas property appraiser over former legislator Jim Frishe.
This was a meaningful election with mostly positive results in both counties as voters supported change and substance over money and spin.