Florida education politics have become a heated battleground since the pandemic began nearly two years ago.
Whether debating the value of masks or the content of history classes, the disputes resonated with growing numbers of parents and other residents suddenly paying more attention to local school boards than at any time in recent memory.
That focus soon turned to efforts to fill boards with members who share voters’ values. Much of the attention has centered on the conservative Republican agenda, with the GOP launching an initiative to get party faithful into local nonpartisan races.
But as candidates have started to emerge, angling to gain name recognition as the Aug. 23, 2022, primary election approaches, they’re not just coming from one side of the political spectrum. The field is shaping up to reflect a fight over philosophy and control.
Motivated by masks
Opposition to districts’ pandemic practices energized some candidates.
Pinellas County hopefuls Kaitlin Noethen (District 2) and Dawn Peters (District 3) spoke against mask mandates during the summer, as board members pondered the possibility of imposing one. Noethen also has complained about the existence of “critical race theory” in the schools.
Peters, a nutritionist who also volunteers in her children’s schools, said her motivation to run came from what she perceived as the current board’s “lack of interest in the parental and teacher involvement.”
That issue of parental rights in guiding children’s education is a driving force for Stephanie Meyer, who is running for the single-member District 6 seat in Pinellas. Having lost her 2020 bid for the countywide District 1 seat, the private school teacher and Hillsborough Community College adjunct instructor listed those rights as one of her main priorities, along with school safety, expanded career education and academic excellence for all.
“The School Board has an obligation to protect stakeholders, provide oversight, direct policy and most of all, be the voice of the people — parents, students, educators and members of the community it serves,” she said.
Hillsborough County District 6 candidate Alysha Legge also referred to her child’s pandemic learning experiences as prompting her run. Listening in to her son’s history class, Legge said, she heard the teacher say the U.S. Constitution can be overridden during states of emergency.
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“I realized, like many other parents, there was a lack of proper education on what America’s founding principles and values are as well as what our elected servants are and are not permitted to do,” the military veteran said. “I started doing research into our board and the issues in our county schools and realized that we desperately need a change.”
Each of these candidates mentioned these hot-button issues as jumping off points. But they also referred to other topics, such as improving finances in Hillsborough and reducing required teacher planning in Pinellas.
Criticism is not limited to a conservative agenda, though.
Hillsborough District 6 candidate Roshaun Gendrett said schools’ poor performance serving low-income minority children factored into his decision to run.
“I am deeply concerned by the number of failing schools, specifically in our black and brown communities,” said Gendrett, who has taught in schools with funding from Title I, the federal program geared to helping low-income students. “It is unacceptable that we have seen only marginal progress.”
Brad DeCorte, seeking the Pinellas District 2 seat, emphasized the importance of providing mental and emotional supports for students and staff as one of his key goals. DeCorte, who recently ran for teachers union president, also stressed the need to pursue equity and excellence in education, and a diverse staff to serve the diverse student body.
“Every one of our students deserves the academic and behavioral support they need to reach their potential,” said DeCorte, who teaches at Tarpon Springs Middle.
Pinellas District 6 candidate Kimberly Works listed exceptional student education services as a priority. She has two sons with autism and said the schools must do more to support students with special needs, and provide more opportunities for students to prepare for life outside school.
“We are teaching our students basic curriculum but not how to manage a bank account, how to conduct themselves in a job interview, or budget their money,” Works said. “I feel that giving opportunities to our students to learn these skills would only benefit them in the end.”
Other candidates suggested they did not have a specific agenda in mind.
A desire to serve
Johnathan McKeen-Chaff said he is running for the Pasco County District 1 seat because, as a new father, he wants to “make a difference” for his son’s education before he arrives in kindergarten.
“I would have one term to affect my son’s education positively,” said McKeen-Chaff, a Dade City native who runs a tutoring firm.
While espousing his Christian values, McKeen-Chaff stressed his views are “extremely moderate” and said he would want to find the middle ground on divisive issues.
Pinellas District 1 hopeful Bronson Oudshoff, who once ran for Largo City Council, said he wants to serve the public and children need someone to stand up for their best interests.
He said he was aware of the controversies swirling around school politics, but did not gravitate to them. If elected, he said, one of his priorities would be to pray for the schools.
Educator Matt Geiger referred his desire to give back to Pasco County as his reason for seeking the District 3 seat there. He said his priorities would center on expanding STEM education and career training.
“My hope and desire as a candidate … is to develop vocational programming that meets the employment demands of our local economy while working in tandem with the local trade unions and develop partnerships that lead to high paying careers for our students with or without college,” said Geiger, Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School director of student services.
The incumbents seeking reelection know they must confront the criticisms head on.
Some office holders have not yet made their intentions clear.
Allen Altman, who could seek a fifth term on the Pasco board, said he will announce his decision after the winter holidays. Hillsborough County board members Stacy Hahn and Melissa Snively would not say if they will run, either, with the county’s pending member district boundary revisions leaving some questions about their races unanswered.
Pinellas board member Nicole Carr said her single term in office made it clear she doesn’t want another. Her colleague Bill Dudley has indicated he will retire.
But others are stepping up to the challenge. They haven’t been deterred by the challenges of the past few years. If anything, they have embraced their work.
Cynthia Armstrong said she was seeking a fourth term in the Pasco District 3 seat to see through initiatives such as the expansion of choice programs. She said she welcomed increased public participation in the process.
Everyone needs to keep perspective on their role, the real estate agent and former teacher added.
“We do have almost 80,000 students…. So we do have to listen to a lot of views,” Armstrong said. “In the end, we do have to make some decisions where we can’t make everybody happy.”
Pasco board member Megan Harding said she ran for the District 5 seat in 2018 as a classroom teacher looking to positively influence the school system, and “nothing has changed.” Her priorities include improved student achievement and increased employee pay.
To get there, Harding said, the district needs to develop strong relationships and respect everyone’s rights and choices: “I truly believe we can all work together to ensure our students are continuing to receive the world class education all students deserve.”
Hillsborough at-large District 6 board member Karen Perez, a licensed social worker, said she first ran in 2018 to confront children’s rising mental health issues. The pandemic heightened those concerns, said Perez, adding finances, school safety and improvements to low-performing schools to her priority list.
“We should be focusing on how we can support students, not just with their academic success, but also by providing resources for them to thrive outside of the classroom,” Perez said.
Pinellas County District 7 board member Caprice Edmond, who won a partial term in 2018, is seeking a full term. A teacher and union activist before her election, Edmond said she wants to see the district establish sustainability goals, set policy after conducting an equity audit and see more progress in district efforts to eliminate achievement gaps.
“In my first year on the School Board, my unique experiences and the invaluable amount that I have learned helped inform my votes on important policy issues,” Edmond said. “We have made progress but can do better.”
Candidates can officially qualify for the ballot the week of June 13.
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