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District 7 School Board candidates talk achievement gap, police, and charter schools

Megan Holmes

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Four candidates for the District 7 Pinellas County School Board seat took the virtual stage Wednesday, working to distinguish themselves in a crowded field for the seat currently held by Rene Flowers.

The candidates include Fairmount Park Science Coach and Lab Teacher Caprice Edmond, retired principal and longtime local educator Sharon Jackson, Pinellas County Job Corps liaison Corey Givens Jr. and former City Council member and business owner Karl Nurse.

Each of the candidates are long-term, if not lifelong Pinellas County residents with deep ties to the St. Petersburg community.

Edmond emphasized her experience in Pinellas County schools, as a student, child advocate, parent and teacher, as well as her work with the Florida Education Association and Pinellas County Teachers Association. Edmond touted her platform for equity in education, as well as her extensive higher education background. Edmond holds a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology, Masters in Elementary Education with an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) endorsement, as well as a Masters in Educational Leadership and a certificate in Infant and Family Mental Health from the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg.

Givens focused primarily on his student-first platform, and said he believes his background in business will benefit the district in efforts to market Pinellas County’s public schools to recruit more businesses to move into the area and create well-paying jobs. He shared some of his own experiences in Pinellas County schools and emphasized his volunteer work with Big Brothers, Big Sisters, NAACP and Lakewood Terrace Neighborhood Association. Givens described himself as a fresh perspective, and a voice willing to speak truth to power.

Nurse touted his age and experience working in St. Petersburg longer than his younger opponents, Givens and Edmond. Nurse harkened back his experience as a legislative aide in the Florida legislature at the very beginning of his career, in a time when he said Florida did a better job of funding education. He emphasized his entrepreneurship, as the own of Bay Tech Label for the last 35 years, and his deep involvement in St. Petersburg city government, in elected, appointed and volunteer capacities. Nurse has been involved in numerous organizations and committees, most notably his own neighborhood association, the Council of Neighborhood Associations, the Historic Preservation and Planning Commission, and the South St. Petersburg Community Revitalization Area (CRA). Nurse explained that alongside Ken Welch, he helped to create South St. Petersburg CRA, which guaranteed $60 million in place-based funding over 30 years.

Jackson argued that she is the most qualified candidate for the role in both theoretical background and experience. Jackson has worked in Pinellas County Schools for more than 30 years, in various roles, from teacher, to guidance counselor, assistant principal and principal, teaching children ranging from elementary to high school, and even college. Jackson holds a Bachelors degree in Special Education, a Masters degree in School Counseling and a Doctorate in Educational and Organizational Leadership.

Candidates, Left to Right: Caprice Edmond, Corey Givens Jr., Sharon Jackson, Karl Nurse.

Moderator Graham Brink, Editor of Editorials for the Tampa Bay Times, posed his first question, asking how candidates would address the racial and ethnic disparities in educational achievement in Pinellas County.

“I think it’s important to recognize that I’m a Black man running in a race at a time when Black men are being gunned down all across America,” Givens said. “Students need to see a reflection of them in the classroom.” Givens explained that he would prioritize recruitment and retention of minority teachers, particularly men.

Jackson agreed. But she argued that teacher pay was the main problem regarding teacher retention, particularly in the lowest performing schools. She said incentives were one way to fix that problem.

Nurse said that one of the most stunning pieces of the achievement gap is the economic component. Nineteen of the elementary schools in South Pinellas County have more than 40 percent of their student population living in poverty, Nurse said. He described the challenges associated with poverty in terms of a foot race.

“I think of it as a 100 yard dash where we’ve got about 40 percent of the kids who have to run 130 yards because they start off behind,” he said. Nurse proposed additional, focused resources be provided for children living in poverty.

Edmond emphasized the necessity of teacher support systems, especially for new teachers, as well as the needs of the whole child. She said that closing the achievement gap is not just about meeting academic needs, but also addressing holistic factors such as food deserts, housing issues and employment issues within the family.

Brink went on to ask candidates to provide a grade letter for Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Michael Grego.

Edmond gave Grego the harshest grade, at a C+, arguing that there was much work to do toward equity in Pinellas County Schools. Jackson gave a B- and agreed that there were elements still missing in Pinellas County Schools’ work toward equity, particularly around student achievement.

Nurse gave Grego an A, citing the history prior to Grego’s hiring, his inheritance of many schools already in dire straits and the difficulty retaining the superintendent that preceded him. “This is the first time in a considerable amount of time that we’ve seen continuous improvement, without seeming much support at a state level,” Nurse said. Givens gave Grego a B+, arguing that more could be done in regard to online and hybrid learning options.

Each of the candidates was then asked about the disparity in Black student suspension and arrests in Pinellas County, as well as the role of school resource officers in schools, a hot topic on the state and national level as efforts to defund police departments have won increasing grassroots support.

Each of the candidates agreed that there is a place for school resource officers in the schools, particularly against the threat of outside violence like a school shooting. Givens said he did not believe there was a place for school resource officers in elementary schools, and Edmond said that they should not be involved in handling student behavior that could be addressed by an administrative staff person. Each of the candidates agreed that there is a way for resource officers to establish positive relationships, particularly with students of color, rather than relationships of fear.

The candidates also agreed that wraparound services should be more accessible to more students, particularly those with higher rates of suspension, including mental health services, life skill programs and services like Summer Bridge.

Nurse was asked to address the criticisms around his candidacy, as a white candidate in a seat that some see as drawn for the purposes of Black representation on the school board. If Nurse is elected, the 2021 Pinellas County School Board will be all white.

Nurse said that the District 7, which encompasses most of South Pinellas County, including Gulfport and Lealman, is large and diverse, with nearly 250,000 constituents, 20 percent of whom are African American. Nurse said that when elected to St. Petersburg City Council, his district, which was located within District 7, was about 50 percent Black, and cited that he received more than 40 percent of the vote in both of his elections. Nurse touted his work in South St. Petersburg neighborhoods surrounding Melrose and Campbell Park during that time, as a statement of his track record of hard work in the Black community.

Charter schools were also a hot topic in the forum, as attendees asked what the candidates believe the appropriate role of charter schools is in relation to public schools.

“I support saving our public schools,” Givens said. “Right now our public schools are under attack. In the Florida Legislature we are giving more money to private charter schools than we are to our public schools, and there are far more public schools than there are charter schools.”

Givens also argued that charter schools should be held to the same standard as public schools, as they are publicly funded.

Jackson said that charter schools provide a choice for parents, which she argued is something parents want. “But I believe in the public school system,” she said. “We need to invest in our public education system.”

Edmond described herself as a proud public education advocate. She said charter schools take dollars meant for public schools and agreed that they are often not held to the same standard as public schools. Edmond also mentioned that there are cases in which charter schools have been found to hold discriminatory practices, making them institutions that do not welcome all children, as public schools do.

Nurse agreed, and noted that 10 charter schools in the county have closed, many with less than two weeks of notice for the surrounding public schools to absorb the children who attended them into their populations. He said that the legislature touts charter schools for their ability to be nimble and flexible, while public schools are not allowed such flexibility.

Nurse also agreed with Givens that charter schools are unfairly funded when compared with public schools.

“Last session, the capital budget was split between charter schools and public schools, even though the public schools have about 15 times as many students. They were split evenly,” Nurse said. “That’s just not fair.”

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