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Suncoast Tiger Bay Club hosts Pinellas County School Board District 1 candidates

Jaymi Butler

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Pinellas County School Board
From left to right, Stephanie Meyer, Laura Hine, Tom Topping

The three at-large candidates for Pinellas County School Board District 1 shared their platforms, along with their thoughts on school reopening and equity in education, at Wednesday’s Tiger Bay virtual candidate forum.

The candidates are: 

  • Laura Hine, a local businesswoman, Navy veteran and public education advocate with an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy and an MBA in finance from USF.
  • Stephanie Meyer, a middle school history teacher at Keswick Christian School with a sales and marketing background.
  • Tom Topping, the founder of a business training and coaching company and 23-year veteran Pinellas County teacher, coach and administrator.

All three candidates expressed support for the school board’s reopening plan, which was presented at a lengthy Pinellas County School Board workshop Tuesday. However, each participant had additional ideas on what needs to be done to ensure a reopening that is fair and equitable for everyone.

“Our kids aren’t statistics or numbers. They all have individual needs,” said Meyer, noting that she’s the only candidate who has experienced distance learning from both the parenting side and the teaching side. “The more options we can provide for our families, the better.”

Topping, who pointed out that he’s the only candidate with public teaching experience, said that although Pinellas County’s plan provides a number of options for students, he’s concerned that teachers don’t have the same amount of choices. 

“There are very difficult choices not only for our parents and students but for our teachers,” he said. “I appreciate the hard work of the superintendent, but I also think that there needs to be more consideration for returning to school right now under current conditions.”

What’s most important in terms of reopening, Hine said, is that the decisions are made locally and include data from health officials. 

“First and foremost, we have to keep the health of our students, teachers and staff in mind,” said Hine, the parent of two elementary-aged children. “That means not just physical health, but also mental and emotional health.”

On the subject of racial equity and diversity in schools, the candidates all agreed more work needs to be done, though they have different approaches on how to achieve those goals. 

“The biggest influence on students outside the home is their teachers,” said Topping, who considers closing the achievement gap a top priority. “We need to train the teachers we have, retain and recruit so we get the best teachers in front of those students. It’s not just about throwing a lucrative compensation and benefits package at them – it’s about providing support, tutors and working with the community to help students.”

Hine, who opted to send her children to her low-rated neighborhood school, North Shore Elementary, said having gross inequities in education is unacceptable. To bridge the gap, she calls for extending the school day, adding school counselors, paying attention to bias and devoting funds to areas of need identified by each individual school.

“We really need to understand where our priorities are,” she said.“Creating community and access, listening and learning and having relationships is the most important thing we can do.”

Those conversations, Meyer said, need to start with parents. She said she’s spoken with many Title I teachers who agree that the key to bringing about educational equity is engaging with parents. And that goes beyond simply calling for parents to visit schools, which she said isn’t working. 

“What we need to do is go to them,” she said. “We need to do outreach to let families know that we need their support in the education of their child. We need to meet them where they are.”

Joanne Lentino, the District 1 incumbent elected in 2016, is not seeking reelection. Other school board seats up for election Aug. 18 include Districts 4, 5 and 7.

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