Legislative candidates Dwight Dudley, Frank Farkas, Kathleen Peters and Josh Shulman draw sharp contrasts at Tiger Bay

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Thursday’s Suncoast Tiger Bay Club meeting was attended by more than just the usual suspects, as an overflow crowd filled the ballroom at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. The SRO crowd was there to see four candidates running in battleground districts for the Florida House. Running for District 68 is Dwight Dudley vs. Frank Farkas, while Kathleen Peters and Josh Shulman are facing-off for District 69.

Each were given a moment to introduce themselves. Shulman began by stating that he stands on a platform that addresses economic development and job growth, while heavily criticizing current leadership in Tallahassee for supporting large for-profits corps and for-profit schools over small businesses and public education in Florida communities. Peters touted her leadership record in Pinellas, describing herself as a fighter addressing juvenile justice and education issues.

Farkas was all about promoting his past experience and “institutional knowledge,” listing legislation that he supported in the past and even making light of past mistakes saying, “Experience—everyone wants it , but no one likes how you get it.” Dudley did jump on the open opportunity to point out a few of Farkas’s mistakes in Farkas’s voting for utility taxes, higher phone rates and Citizens Insurance. D

udley, a criminal defense attorney, ended his intro stating, “Ethics is the overarching problem in Tallahassee. I am used to representing individual Floridians and fighting for them; I’m ready to represent all Floridians and fight for you.”

Audience questions ranged from Family Resources’ CEO Jane Harper asking about candidate’s position on reproductive rights and contraception and abortion. Awkwardly, it seemed that all candidates wanted to appear moderate on this issue with the exception of Farkas who declared he’s pro-life, making exceptions for rape, incest and “life of the woman.” Shulman received applause for his answer, stating that he believes in the “sanctity of the relationship between doctor and patient,” maintaining that government should not get involved.

Education was the hottest topic for the day, sparking four successive questions

This topic was first ignited by St. Petersburg Councilmember Bill Dudley asking candidates if they had a specific plan to make education better in Florida. Peters advocated for more vocational opportunities for young students in school and more support of centers for excellence and career academies for the many students who are not college-bound. Shulman openly criticized the FCAT, being used in ways that it was never intended to be used such as its implementation as a punitive tool against teachers; instead Shulman recommends using scores to identify needs and provide resources.

Representing the other district, Dudley answered by describing the problems inherent with early literacy issues and recommended an investment in early literacy to prepare students for success. Farkas, on the other hand, attempted to defend the programs already in play for education and the state’s plan to award salary raises to teachers who perform better than other teachers.

Student truancy

Student truancy was next in line, with candidates being asked what they thought the solution was. Shulman began by recommending that government work with schools and law enforcement and develop programs to address issues in the home. Dudley quickly retorted, stating, “It doesn’t help if you arrest parents — then you have no parents at home. We need an answer that doesn’t lead more kids into foster care.”

Farkas’s solution for truancy is to make learning fun, saying that kids aren’t interested in school but have no problem operating a new phone or new technology. He says that schools need to teach students “the new way” to keep them interested in school. Peters echoed Dudley’s sentiments in that arresting people isn’t the answer—not only is it an expensive solution but it further damages families And erodes their trust in a system that should be there to help them. She recommended collaborative solutions to be developed with key stakeholders.

Student/teacher accountability

The next education question was how to re-write student/teacher accountability—what would be the new principals? Dudley went back to his criticism of the FCAT—that 2/3 of the scores are being rejected. Then the state shakes it up like an Etch-A-Sketch and gives it back as if it’s all better now. Dudley says we need a new tool—one that is effective and used to do what it is designed to do. Farkas returned with his support of teacher merit raises along with holding students back who don’t pass, saying “There’s no such thing as social promotion.”

Peters took a different approach to the question, asking for flexibility in defining success for students and teachers—if a student may not be performing at grade level yet, but he or she has documented significant improvement—this should be acknowledged and rewarded. Shulman also called for flexibility  while also stating that he wants the state to hold for-profit [charter] schools to task to ensure they are as accountable to students and teachers as public schools are.

College expenses

A high school student and Bright Futures scholar expressed his concerns that even with great academic achievement, college is still too expensive for he and his family. Farkas did not seem to have any solutions to offer, but he did laud the Bright Futures program, admitted college is expensive, then said, “Florida universities are the best deal in the country—one of…”

Peters, on the other hand, said to the young man, “I’m certain you’ve had offers already to help pay for college. Then she continued talking about Florida pre-paid college program because that what she had for her children, and she said, “They knew from the beginning that they were going to college.”

Shulman explained that Bright Futures scholarship program has been, “decimated [by the state],” and continued saying that while it would be great if all parents could save for their children’s education but not all can. Dudley said, “We gave away $1.7 billion since 1995 to big corporations, and kids need assistance to go to college.” Dudley recommended a shift in allocating more funding to small businesses and education assistance and more accountability for the state government to make sure that happens.

Via Daphne Street. You can reach Daphne at [email protected]

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.