One thing was clear at Tuesday’s forum for Pinellas School Board candidates — the school system needs revamping.
But how that is to take place isn’t so clear, although most agreed that communication and stakeholder participation are needed.
“Parental participation is a must,” said Eliseo Santana, one of the candidates for District 5. “Our system is not geared to bringing our parents into the schools.”
Eileen Long, who is running for the District 4 seat, said, “Survey our stakeholders, find what we are doing right; find what we are doing wrong; and be proactive, not reactive.”
Joanne Lentino, a retired teacher running for District 1, said teachers and other school employees have been sidelined by the upper administrative levels of the School District. Teachers and other school workers, she said, were not consulted for their thoughts and ideas about ways to turn around seven underperforming schools. That, she said, has “really been a slap in the face.”
Then, she referred to the turnaround expert from Tennessee the district recently hired: “Bringing in someone from out of state was another slap in the face. … We keep missing the point that this is between the child and instructional staff.”
Santana, Long and Lentino were speaking at a forum co-hosted by St. Petersburg College and the NAACP of St. Petersburg. Six of the nine candidates running for three seats on the board were there. Absent were District 4 incumbent Ken Peluso; Bill Dudley, candidate for District 1; and Chris Hardman, a write-in candidate for District 4. Peluso and Dudley had scheduling conflicts. Hardman had an illness in the family.
Much of the hour and a half forum was spent talking about the need for change. Even Cook, who defended the system, said there was a need for improvement. Among those needed improvements, she said, are closing the achievement gap that shows black children and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds lagging behind. Security in the schools also needs improving, she said, as does discipline and how people react to discipline.
One of the most jarring moments of the evening came when candidates were asked what they thought of the School District’s plan to turnaround seven underperforming schools. Some of them did not know what the plan is. That, they said, is a clear indication that the district failed to include stakeholders and has failed to communicate that plan.
“I really don’t know what the plan is,” Santana said. He wondered if the district had told the public what the plan is, adding, “I don’t know if it’s a good plan. I don’t know if it’s a bad plan. … We need to empower our community to solve this problem. It doesn’t come from the top.”
But Santana got the last word. He noted that all three candidates — Cook, Petruccelli and himself — had shown up for the forum. That, he said, gave voters a chance to hear all of them and judge for themselves. Then, referring to Cook, who has been on the board since 2000, he said, “If you like what you have received in the last 15 or 16 years, you know who to vote for.”
After the forum, St. Petersburg council member Karl Nurse said he was happy to see the candidates “were confronting the elephant in the room.” Incumbents, he said, have an advantage in forums because they have knowledge gained by board service, but, school board members “clearly should have known” what would happen when they segregated schools by race and income. Now, he said, voters have a chance to “elect some new school board members with fire in their bellies.”
Former Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running for Congress in Florida’s 13th Congressional District, said he appreciated the emphasis on teachers. Crist said education will be an important part of his campaign as it’s a critical issue that’s near and dear to him. He praised U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor‘s stands on education, saying he would love to be able to support and help the Tampa Bay representative.