One week after being defeated in his bid for the hotly contested Pinellas County School Board District 7 seat, Karl Nurse said he doesn’t see himself running for office again.
Then again, he never intended to run for school board either.
Nurse had spent more than nine years on the St. Petersburg City Council championing issues including affordable housing, job growth and urban renewal before terming out in 2018. It was a successful experience that most politicians would be proud to hang their hats on and walk away. But when “some of the most important people in the educational community” approached him about running for school board, the 66-year-old who likes to fix things couldn’t resist giving politics another shot.
“Their argument was that everybody on the board is or has been a teacher,” Nurse said during a recent interview with the Catalyst. “It’s a $1.6 billion budget. We need somebody with a heart and a financial background.”
Nurse has a combination of both. He’s owned a successful company, Bay Tech Label, for more than 30 years. During that time, his company adopted Melrose Elementary, a struggling school in the district Nurse represented on city council. Running for school board seemed like a logical next step, and in a typical year, the election might have gone a different way. But as we all know, 2020 is far from typical.
“If I had known what kind of year it was going to be, I would have spent more time with my grandchildren,” Nurse mused. “Hindsight is always 2020.”
“The most bizarre election campaign I ever saw”
The pandemic was in full force by the time Nurse announced his candidacy for school board. Then, five days later, George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, spurring a renewed focus on the Black Lives Matter movement and bringing race into the conversation at every level of society – including local elections.
Supporters of Nurse’s opponent, teacher Caprice Edmond, noted that if Nurse was elected, the school board would not have any Black representation. And while both candidates repeatedly said that race shouldn’t be the defining issue in the election, there was really no way around it.
“The irony is that Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about people being measured by the content of their character and not the color of their skin,” he said, adding that the topic of race ended up overshadowing the conversation on how to fix schools. “We are in such an electric moment that it isn’t possible.”
Nurse said he understands why it’s important for the Black community to have a representative on the school board and agrees that with all things being equal, “you’d like to have a school board that looks like the district.” However, he noted that around the country, there have been many occasions where white representatives were elected to serve majority Black districts like he did when he served as a council member.
“I would argue that when I was on city council, I was perhaps the most successful advocate for the Black community that they’ve ever had,” he said. “I think most people would agree.”
To highlight that point, just days after the election, Nurse said he was contacted by “one of the most prominent members of the Black community” who asked him to run for mayor.
“I said ‘You do know that I just lost the school board race because I was white?’ and he said, ‘well, yeah, and I couldn’t vote for you for that.’ And I said ‘You know that Ken Welch is running for mayor?’ and he said ‘Yeah, but we think you’d do a better job.'”
Nurse is adamant he won’t be running for anything.
“I walked out on that limb once before,” he said. “And I could hear the saw shortly thereafter.”
Though his time serving as an elected official is likely over, Nurse doesn’t plan to stop advocating for causes he’s passionate about. After all, he’s been involved in politics in some way, shape or form since he was a teenager knocking on doors to campaign for candidates he supported.
Nurse is currently chairing two affordable housing nonprofits and working with a third one on developing more properties in South St. Pete. He noted that it’s getting harder and harder to do affordable housing because of the rapidly rising costs of rehabbing homes and the limited supply of these types of properties.
“It’s a real challenge to find rehabs,” he said. “They’re being bought up by speculators at a tremendous rate.”
Because of those challenges, Nurse said that new models need to be found if the city wants to make true inroads in providing more housing options. He got a “toe in the water” during his time on city council in terms of allowing more than single-family homes to be built, at least on the periphery of single-family neighborhoods. However, he said there’s still a lot of work that needs to truly make a difference. He’s hopeful the city’s StPete2050 plan, a community-generated vision for the city’s future, will pave the way for innovative approaches to housing.
“It’s going to take more than single-family houses,” he said. “There are about 1,000 single family lots in South St. Pete. If we build a single-family house on every one, by the time we’re done, we’ll be in worse shape than we are now because the demand is rising faster than it’s possible to build.”
That’s not all Nurse is working on. He said he put some feelers out on what he could do to support preschool education – one of his main focus areas as a school board candidate – prior to the election, but for his own mental health “I didn’t go too far down that road.”
Now, he’s talking to several different early childhood education boards about finding ways to close the achievement gap and ensure students are entering kindergarten prepared for success. One of the issues that needs to be confronted, Nurse said, is that many of the community’s government-supported preschools are failing to do their jobs and are essentially serving as daycare centers, which disproportionately hurts low-income students.
“The irony is that in elementary schools, you get government funding and so there’s accountability,” he said, noting that the district he represented during his time on city council had three consistently failing schools. “There’s no accountability to speak of for preschools.”
Nurse said he was pleased to hear president-elect Joe Biden talk about increasing funding for pre-K programs, but with a split Senate, he said he’s “not counting on the federal government coming to our rescue.” That’s why he plans to keep working at the local level to create change and improve outcomes for all students.
“If you don’t catch kids up early, they’ll never catch up,” he said. “How early can you reach out? That’s the kind of stuff I’m going to work on. The precise means of how I’m going to do that? I’m not sure yet.”