Three of the four candidates for the two open seats on the Pinellas County School Board debated school performance, allocation of resources, teacher retention, and diversity during a forum Wednesday at St. Petersburg College.
The debate took place against a background of publicity over the underperformance of five majority-black schools in southern St. Petersburg. And while the panel asked for specificity and concrete answers, candidates’ comments at times seemed to rely more on rhetoric than on facts and solutions.
Joanne Lentino, a recently retired teacher running for the District 1 at-large seat, talked about the need for diversity in teachers, staff, and the teaching materials students receive. She suggested more role models are needed in schools.
Lentino, a first-time candidate, is running against Matt Stewart, another first-time candidate. Stewart did not appear at Wednesday’s forum because of a scheduling conflict.
Carol Cook, who is running for re-election to District 5, which covers a portion of mid-Pinellas, said part of the problem is children who come into kindergarten and first grade without being ready to do the work. Cook said the district is seeking to partner with “quality” pre-kindergarten programs to help ensure children are ready for school.
Her opponent for District 5, Eliseo Santana, said, “The school-to-prison pipeline has to end.” Santana is a retired civilian supervisor at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
Santana added that children need to be able to read and do math. Santana said he is willing to spend money to ensure that children are taught. Later in the debate, he suggested the district needs to find specific programs, such as phonics, to fit the needs and learning styles of each child. Not every child, he said, learns the same way.
Lentino said teachers have a hard time helping students when a class-full of children are at different levels of preparedness. Breaking kids into smaller groups so they get individual attention would help achievement, she said.
Cook responded that problems can’t be turned around overnight. She argued the district is already seeing improvements — three of the five schools have increased their grades. The district, Cook said, is providing more financial resources and attention to those schools.
The school elections are non-partisan races. The District 1 race will appear on all ballots. The District 5 race will be only the ballots of voters who live in that district.