It’s a tough year to run for office if you’re a Pinellas County School Board member who wants to hang onto your seat.
Of the three seats that were up for election this year, one incumbent, Janet Clark, declined to seek re-election. A second, Ken Peluso, was defeated in the Aug. 30 election. The third, long-time board member Carol Cook, is facing a runoff against first-time candidate Eliseo Santana, who retired as a civilian supervisor from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
The main obstacle to re-election — a series of news stories that branded St. Petersburg schools as “failure factories” where black students languished without adequate resources.
Cook, who faced Santana and Indian Shores council member Mike Petruccelli in the Aug. 30 election, said she was “running against two people and the newspaper.”
Even so, she managed to get about 48.2 percent of the vote to Santana’s 26.7 percent and Petruccelli’s 25.1 percent.
As she heads back onto the campaign trail for the Nov. 8 runoff (held during the general election), Cook said she expects the questions and doubts about the quality of education in Pinellas schools to continue. That, Cook said, is part of the frustration because many — including some of the candidates on the August ballot — made sweeping generalizations that what’s happening in those schools is all bad and reflects the situation in all of the county’s schools.
Neither of those is true, Cook said.
“We can’t say everything is rosy,” she said. But, it is possible to draw a more realistic picture of the good and bad in the district and in those five schools.
Among the good, she said, are better graduation rates and more black kids in advanced placement courses across the district. And, there’s a new attitude about working with communities to share school facilities — a swimming pool in Tarpon Springs that will be used jointly by students and the public; a former elementary school in the unincorporated Lealman area that will be used by the county and community activists to help reach families and others in that underserved area; and the beginning of discussions with the YMCA over a joint use of the property where St. Petersburg’s Riviera Middle School was located.
As for the bad, Cook said there has been improvement in the five schools – Melrose, Maximo, Lakewood, Campbell Park and Fairmount Park elementaries. The achievement gap is shrinking a bit and school grades have improved for three of the five: Maximo has gone to a C; and Lakewood and Fairmount Park have gone to a D.
But there’s still a ways to go — Melrose and Campbell Park still have Fs. Cook said she believes those schools, too, will improve now that the district has a clear plan and good leadership in place at the schools.
Cook said she does not regret voting to end busing and bring kids back to schools close to their homes.
“I do regret that we might not have put the right people in place,” she said.
But that’s changed with the hiring in 2012 of Michael Grego as the district superintendent.
In the four years before Grego was hired, the district went through a series of superintendents. Clayton Wilcox was superintendent when the board voted to end busing. He was replaced by Julie Janssen, who was fired in 2011. Then John Stewart was brought in as interim superintendent until Grego’s hiring.
Grego, she said, took ownership of the problems from Day 1 and has continued to work at improving not only those five schools, but the entire district.
Cook agreed the board has a good working relationship with Grego, but denied members rubber stamp his proposals. Those who only watch board meetings might think that, she said, because the real debate comes during workshops. That’s when board members work at thrashing out ideas and proposals so that, if they come to a final vote, the issues have been worked out.
With the Nov. 8 election just weeks away — mail ballots go out Oct. 4 — Cook said she’s in for a busy time. But, she said, if voters educate themselves about the facts and take a balanced look at the issues, the decision will be clear.
Cook and Santana are running for the District 5 seat on the board. District 5 covers a portion of mid-Pinellas County. The election is non-partisan.