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Karl Nurse enters Pinellas County School Board race, drawing praise and ire

Megan Holmes

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Photo credit: 1Love Magazine

Former St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse on Wednesday officially announced the launch of his campaign for a seat on the Pinellas County School Board, representing District 7.

Nurse, who would succeed Pinellas County School Board Chair Rene Flowers if elected, drew criticism from both leaders in the black community and progressive white leaders, for running in one of the only districts in the county reliably held by an African American representative.

Flowers is seeking a seat on the Pinellas County Board of Commissioners vacated by Commissioner Ken Welch, who decided not to run for another term and is expected to run for St. Petersburg mayor in 2021.

Nurse told the St. Pete Catalyst that his interest in public education dates back more than 40 years, when he helped get teacher and union leader Don Chamberlin elected for the Florida State Senate in 1976. Nurse served as Chamberlain’s legislative aide for four years, from ’76-’80.

Later, during his nearly 10 years on St. Petersburg City Council, Nurse chaired the National League of Cities’ Council on Youth, Education and Families. His sister and his niece are public school teachers, and he says his service in St. Petersburg City Council largely covered issues surrounding schools and neighborhoods.

Nurse cited his work to force the sale of a dangerous public housing complex across from John’s Hopkins Elementary, his advocacy for the installation of sidewalks from Jordan Park to Melrose Elementary to allow young students to walk safely to and from school, and his efforts to shift management of the historic Happy Workers childcare center to R’Club Childcare.

“When you’re trying to turn around communities, one of the levers is housing, public safety and infrastructure,” Nurse said. “The other part of what goes along with that is public schools.”

“People might ask, where should you start? The answer is, it doesn’t matter because they’re all connected. Good schools reinforce safer neighborhoods, safer neighborhoods reinforce good schools and good jobs. Families want to move to places with good schools.”

Nurse’s two priorities are an increased focus on technical education and early education. He says not enough has been done to improve technical education and create pathways for students who do not graduate from college to get middle class jobs. “We need to pay as much attention to the kids not going to college as the kids who are going to college,” Nurse told the Catalyst. 

He noted that early education is particularly important, because if students come in to kindergarten behind the curve, and don’t catch up by third grade, there’s less than a 50 percent chance that they ever will.

Nurse took his announcement to Facebook Wednesday morning, in a since-deleted post, writing, “I am ready to return to public service!” His announcement drew both support and criticism from local leaders on social media.

Former State Senator Jack Latvala and Pinellas County Commissioner Pat Gerard commented their congratulations and support. Fellow former Council member Charlie Gerdes commented, “Gerdes family All In for Karl Nurse.” Business leaders Anne Drake McMullen and Mario Farias took to Facebook to express their support, as well as dozens of others.

Rev. Andy Oliver, pastor of Allendale United Methodist Church, expressed disappointment at Nurse’s decision to run for the seat, writing, “Karl, I would like to meet to discuss why you chose the one seat that would have a real chance to be represented by an African American. Having an all white school board is the last thing Pinellas needs in the year 2021. I would love to support you for another seat. Many people in your base are disappointed.”

Oliver spoke to the St. Pete Catalyst regarding his comment on the since-deleted post.

“I learned a couple of weeks ago that Karl Nurse was considering running for Rene Flowers’ School Board seat, and I also know that our district lines are gerrymandered in such a way as to limit the number of seats attainable for people of color across every level of government,” Oliver said.

“There are a limited number of seats by design. I am disappointed that Karl Nurse decided to run for the one seat that really has the most potential for a person of color to hold. It’s important to me because representation matters, it’s important because Karl Nurse, no matter how sympathetic he is to the black cause, will never have the life experiences of someone who grew up black.”

Oliver said that he has asked Nurse to reconsider running in District 7, and asked him to seek election in an at-large seat instead.

“I think he would be a great addition to the school board in another district,” Oliver explained. “If we want the right policies on our school board, we need to start and end with the right representation of a variety of life experiences.”

While Oliver has not endorsed a candidate for the race at this time, he says he plans to support a black candidate for the seat.

“I’ve talked to other leaders of progressive groups, and am organizing a response not only to Karl Nurse but to anyone who plans to endorse him,” Oliver said.

Brother John Muhammad, well-known community leader and executive director of the Community Development Training Center, also criticized Nurse’s candidacy. He wrote, “Wow. So we trying to Make the School Board all White Again Huh?”

In another post, Muhammad further explained why he believed Nurse should not run for the District 7 seat. “There is an African American Candidate that has 18 years of experience IN EDUCATION who’s running and should be supported,” he said. “He should not run for THIS seat. If he wants to be on the Board there’s an At Large Seat he can run for that is being vacated by Joanne Lentino. Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Matters and it has been proven that outcomes are better for the Children when School Boards are diverse.”

Muhammad did not immediately respond to the St. Pete Catalyst‘s request for comments.

Rev. J.C. Pritchett, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of St. Petersburg, wrote an email to fellow pastors and faith leaders, concerning Nurse’s announcement.

“The purpose of this letter is to raise my deep concern that the Pinellas County School Board may lack African American representation, a development that would be disastrous for a district still grappling with the long entrenched challenges of structural racism,” Pritchett wrote.

“Representation from within the African American community is vital, particularly in a district with a history of segregation, discrimination and structural racism. It will be a mistake for clergy to sit by as another historical political maneuver is made on our Community.”

Nurse responded to these criticisms by doubling down on his support in the district. “I represented a majority black district for most of the time I was on City Council and I never got less than 70 percent of the vote,” Nurse said. “I would suggest that a majority of the folks were happy with the advocacy I brought to the table. In fact, I would argue I was one of, if not the most forceful advocate for inner-city residents.”

“I am running for this seat because I had represented 80 percent of this district before, I know the challenges, much better than I know the challenges of Dunedin. It is the best fit for me,” Nurse said.

Beyond the district of St. Petersburg that Nurse represented in City Council, Pinellas County School Board District 7 is large and diverse, encompassing most of St. Petersburg, Gulfport and Lealman.

“I would hope that they would make an effort to judge me by the content of my character not the color of my skin,” Nurse said. “If we can improve schools, we can grow the middle class. To me that is the fundamental challenge to our community and that’s what I’ll work on.”

 

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