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Pinellas School Board candidates discuss pressing issues

Mark Parker

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St. Petersburg College's Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions hosted the 2022 Pinellas County School Board Candidates Forum Monday night at its Clearwater campus auditorium. Screengrab.

Nine people vying to serve as advocates for over 100,000 children attending schools in Pinellas County recently discussed the most pressing topics in education, including safety, retention and parental involvement.

St. Petersburg College’s Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions hosted the 2022 Pinellas County School Board Candidates Forum July 18 at its Clearwater campus auditorium. Former local news anchor Al Ruechel moderated the event, which featured two incumbents and seven hopefuls.

The race to represent Florida’s seventh largest school district – and the 26th largest in the nation – is heating up, with early voting beginning Aug. 13 and primaries taking place on Aug. 23. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote in the primary, the two leading candidates in their respective districts will face a runoff in the Nov. 8 general election.

“The winners of these races will have a tremendous impact on the education of our children,” said Ruechel. “One of the defining hallmarks of our American way of life.”

School safety

In light of the most recent school shooting at Uvalde Elementary School in Texas, leaving 19 children and two teachers dead, Ruechel broached the topic of safety at the onset of the forum.

Carl “Z” Zimmerman, a former state legislator and District 3 hopeful, said that during his time in Tallahassee, he wrote legislation to increase school safety. He was also a longtime educator at Countryside High School in Clearwater and noted that during his tenure, teachers had to lock their classroom doors from the outside.

Although he said that much has changed, there are still area schools with the same practice, and resolving that issue would be his top priority.

Keesha Benson, also vying to represent District 3, credited Pinellas County Schools (PCS) for its active-shooter planning, but believes school resource officers could receive further training. Like many, she also wants to ensure students are aware of mental health services and that there are enough care providers across the school district.

She also mentioned environmental safety, noting issues around the Child’s Park neighborhood of St. Petersburg that board member and fellow candidate Caprice Edmond previously brought to light.

Maria Di Fiore Solanki is vying to replace incumbent Caprice Edmonds in District 7.

“There should be no school that has those opportunities where the kids can’t even go on the playground and play because of environmental issues.”

Brian Martin, running in District 6, also credited PCS for its security programs. However, he said the most significant hole in local school safety is the lack of access to mental health services.

According to Martin, there is currently one counselor for every 434 students, one social worker for every 780 and just one psychologist for every 1,089 kids in the district.

“That’s where we really need to get and try and stop violence before it happens,” said Martin.

Maria Di Fiore Solanki, running in District 7, said the school’s safety officers are a great first line of defense. However, she would like to focus on preventive measures and student wellbeing. These include starting the school day with prayer, yoga or meditation, taking students outside more, increasing community involvement and offering nutritious meals.

“We need to look at the child holistically to address their mental health issues,” she added.

Retention

Regarding retention, Stephanie Meyer, a District 6 candidate, said teachers are leaving the profession due to disciplinary problems in the classroom. She believes that many school officials lack the will to address the issue and said she would work collaboratively with other board members to create solutions.

She said that as a current teacher in Pinellas, she understands there is nothing worse than two or three students continuously interrupting the entire class as they try to learn.

“I think that we need to ensure that we are enforcing sound consequences, fair consequences, across the board for egregious behavior,” said Meyer. “We have to address this, and we need to address it now.”

Kimberly Works, running against Meyer in District 6, believes increasing communication is critical to keeping teachers. She would like to implement the calls and text messages between educators and parents that were previously more prevalent.

Works said that as a “very involved parent,” she has built relationships with educators over the last 15 years who have relayed that the problem is not just child behavioral issues. She believes that if PCS brought teachers enthusiastic about the profession and its mission to job fairs, it would increase applications.

“Have these educators speak out about why they’re passionate about this district and what they love about it,” said Works. “That will help us get those educators back into this district – that we need.”

Edmond, the District 7 incumbent, said the PCS human resources department has relayed that teachers are leaving for better-paying opportunities. She also said the culture and climate within the district shoulder some blame, and she’s excited about the changes proposed by new Superintendent Kevin Hendrick to enhance those areas.

She said that as classroom culture improves, behavioral challenges decrease, and teachers can educate “each and every child.”

“That’s how we’ll make up for some of the time loss, as well as address the achievement gap,” said Edmond. “And allow teachers to just teach and have that love for learning that they got into the profession for.”

Zimmerman said that while educators are underpaid, they did not enter the profession for the money. He blamed state leadership for forcing teachers to enforce legislation instead of focusing on educating, while they also worry about a lack of job security.

He said schools could fire teachers at will, something they previously did not have to face.

“So, as a school board, we need to reduce that stress, and we need to take away as much paperwork as we can,” said Zimmerman. “And we have to get back to letting teachers do what they want to do, which is teach students.”

Parental involvement

All nine candidates agreed that increasing parental involvement is critical for student success. Lisa Cane, running for reelection in District 2, said that in this digital age transparency between parents and teachers “is easier than ever.”

Cane noted she could view the curriculum taught to her children from her home computer, and communication of that information is the area with room for improvement. She added that increased security measures have pushed parents outside of the classroom and resulted in less personal conversations.

“I feel that we need to improve upon the culture between parents and teachers,” said Cane. “Because I think the overall goal is to help our children become educated.”

Brad DeCorte, campaigning against Cane in District 2, said parents have a right to view the curriculum. While that opportunity exists, he believes the problem is a lack of communication on how to access the information.

He said some communities in Pinellas County are more involved than others, and those are the people education officials need to concentrate on helping.

“I don’t think it should be legislated from Tallahassee, however,” said DeCorte. “But we do need to reach out and make sure that people are getting more involved.

“Parents need the help – there are parents that don’t know how to help their students.”

Keesha Benson is running for an at-large seat in District 3.

Benson said that as a parent of three, she is very interested in what her children learn. However, she said that if state officials find the curriculum valid for public education, it should reflect historical accuracy and represent all students in the district.

She noted that parents could choose to send their kids to public or private schools, but if someone utilizes public funding, the district should hold them accountable for inclusivity.

“People ask me what I think about charter schools or private schools – I have no issue,” said Benson. “But to me, if you’re using public funds … you should be really transparent with how that is even used, and it should be inclusive for all students.”

For voter resources, visit the website here. For more information on the Pinellas County School Board, visit the website here.

 

 

 

 

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Carl

    July 20, 2022at7:29 pm

    I despise the “culture” references and the DEI inclusivity language used by several of these board members.
    I believe that is a root cause for “issues” they are complaining about with some students.
    “INCLUSIVITY” is code for RACISIM now. The problem is its RACISIM directed at WHITE PEOPLE!!

  2. Avatar

    Dana Heston

    July 22, 2022at2:10 pm

    Amen

  3. Avatar

    Shirley Hayes

    August 5, 2022at4:51 pm

    It is so sad that intelligent people refuse to admit that America is a country with different Cultures. Culture does Not mean Racism against White Folk. America is like a flower garden with different varieties of flowers. I love the different colors and scents of flowers.as I love the different people in America. I appreciate the cultural differences, they keep life from being boring.

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