School Board Forum Centers on Parental Involvement

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Candidates for Pinellas County School Board fielded questions from a feisty bunch of political junkies at Suncoast Tiger Bay Thursday.

Incumbents Linda Lerner, Terry Krasner, Rene Flowers and Peggy O’Shea all face challengers in this year’s election. District 4 board member Robin Wikle isn’t seeking re-election. Three people are running for her seat – Beverly Billiris, Ken Peluso and John Nygren.

While the incumbents focused on positive achievements in the district, challengers highlighted the need for fresh eyes and new policies.

Maureen Ahern, wife of State Representative Larry Ahern, is challenging Linda Lerner for the District 6 seat. She’s focused on increasing the number of fundamental schools within the district citing high demand and a lack of availability. Part of her concern is a lack of parental involvement which fundamental schools require lest your kid get the boot.

Ahern criticized Lerner and other incumbent board members for not expanding those programs.

“We have some excellent schools, but I want all of our students to experience this,” Ahern said. “Half of third graders are failing. Half.”

Lerner, who has been on the school board since 1990, defended her long tenure arguing her voice has often been the loudest in support of students.

“I don’t think we need a new voice. My voice is OK. I’m more knowledgeable and more experienced,” Lerner said.

District 4 candidates Beverly Billiris, John Nygren and Ken Peluso all are pushing to boost parental involvement, but they offered little insight into how to do that.

Billiris suggested involving community partners, like churches and other faith-based groups, to reach out to parents who need help managing “all those kids.” When asked about incorporating faith into schools, Billiris clarified that she isn’t suggesting faith leaders come into the schools, but rather just help with parental outreach outside the classroom.

Peluso, who was a little more staunch on the religion in schools topic – he said creationism should be taught in science classes – also suggested involving churches to reach parents.

“A group of us from church established a relationship with Eisenhower Elementary,” Peluso said. “We finally had a picnic at a local park – we had 600-700 people there.”

Nygren offered the closest thing to a tangible solution pointing to successes in employing social workers in schools whose job includes outreach to parents in the community.

But the bottom line, and incumbents acknowledged, is that many parents from low socio-economic neighborhoods won’t get involved no matter how hard education leaders try to get them to.

District 2 incumbent Terry Krassner said, as a principle, she tried everything, even providing food at school events, but many parents still just never showed.

“What we ended up really doing was trying to make independent learners from Kindergarten on,” Krassner said.

Krassner, a life-long educator, is up against engineer Chris Tauchnitz. He immediately debunked any concern that he doesn’t have a background in education by pointing out that the board should be diverse. In about every question asked, Tauchnitz circled to bringing parents back into schools.

The only message louder than parental involvement was high stakes testing and the new Common Core testing standards.

Former Tarpon Springs mayor and retired teacher Beverly Billiris slammed legislative policy that forces teachers to “teach to the test.”

“Allow us to teach,” Billiris said during a two-minute introduction. “It’s not the teacher, it’s the mandate.”

District 7 incumbent Rene Flowers echoed the frustration. She pointed out that even though there are too many failing schools, not everything is so grim.

“The needle is moving. Do we still have an achievement gap? Yes we do, but go to your legislature and tell them to stop moving the bar every time our children meet and exceed the bar that they [have already set,]” Flowers said to a barrage of cheers.

Flowers faces a write-in candidate, Irene Olive Cates. Cates is emphasizing failing rates among third-graders and wants to use innovation and technology to boost literacy. Though, she didn’t specify how she would see that through.

School Board member Peggy O’Shea was the only candidate not at the luncheon. O’Shea recently announced she is battling breast cancer and her doctor recommended she not attend.

O’Shea’s challenger is environmental historian PhD, Kent Curtis. Curtis started a non-profit installing educational gardens in Title 1 schools and has worked with teachers and members of the community on ways to better educate children. He wants to increase vocational programs for non-college-bound students and also shift away from what he calls over testing.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.