As several school board candidates celebrated clear wins on Tuesday, three-race hopes in the Tampa Bay area grew stronger for two more months of campaigning.
Each of the three showdowns ahead of the Nov. 8 general election exemplify the polarized partisanship that has recently marked what was previously quiet, nonpartisan local affairs.
Pinellas County offers two contests that pit conservatives supporting Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education agenda against liberals who advocate a more traditional view of public education — one of which has support from DeSantis rival Charlie Crist . Pasco County still has one of those races.
Thomas Kennedy, president of the Florida School Boards Association, said it’s not surprising to see the campaigns play out this way, given the attention paid to education policy and governance by politicians in the States and nationals.
DeSantis took the unprecedented step of endorsing multiple candidates across Florida, paying senders to support people he believed would advance issues like expanded school choice and greater parental control over school services. Crist and the Florida Democratic Party soon followed suit, backing their own group of hopefuls.
Kennedy, who sits on the Citrus County Board of Directors, expressed hope that despite the vast division over approaches to education, the candidates would remain respectful and allow voters to see where they stand in the important non-partisan issue of parenting.
“Our students need us to succeed,” he said. “It won’t work if we don’t.”
The remaining candidates in the Tampa Bay races agreed that the overriding goal must be to do what is in the best interests of students, parents and educators. They differ widely in their views on how to achieve this.
In the Pinellas District 3 countywide race, for example, contestant Dawn Peters, a personal trainer, said she plans to join her platform. This includes pushing for a return to basics and strictly following new state laws relating to race and gender education.
“My message will obviously be different from my opponent’s,” said Peters, a supporter of the conservative group Moms for Liberty.
She added that she intended to run a positive campaign, and that while partisanship comes through in the debate on the issues, “that’s not the key message here. We do it for the kids.
Keesha Benson, an educator and social worker who is running against Peters, said she also plans to stick to her message of equitable, high-quality education for all children.
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“I never thought that would be a sticking point for people,” Benson said, noting growing opposition in some areas to the notion of equity in education.
She also avoided the party politics that seeped into school board elections.
“It’s a non-partisan race, and I’m the best candidate,” Benson said.
The Pinellas District 6 seat representing South Central County offers a similar dynamic.
This contest pits teacher Stephanie Meyer, a strong supporter of the DeSantis program, against chemical engineer Brian Martin, who has the endorsements of the Florida Democratic Party and its leaders.
Meyer, who did not reach the age of majority in elementary school, said she believes she has the winning stance on the issues by supporting the basics of education, school choice and parental rights while opposing to classroom teaching of “political movements or ideologies” such as LGBTQ courses.
“Voters want change in our schools,” said Meyer, also a Moms for Liberty supporter. “They don’t want our students to learn politics.”
Martin agreed that politics had no place in the classroom. He did, however, refer to a different set of policies, suggesting the state’s latest rules on race, gender and related issues should take a back seat to support teachers and students.
“We have a positive and pro-education message,” he said. “I believe that public education is a non-partisan issue. I am happy to fight for all of us.
In Pasco, the District 1 race representing East County has DeSantis-endorsed nominee Al Hernandez, a healthcare executive, facing district graduation improvement professor James Washington, who has support from Democratic and LGBTQ-affiliated organizations.
“We both have very different views,” Washington said, adding that he hadn’t heard much from Hernandez about the issues, but “he’s approved by the governor, you can assume you know. where it is”.
Washington has said it doesn’t view Hernandez as anti-student, but fears he is a “buffer for the governor’s agenda” – something Washington strongly opposes and has said it won’t do. “absolutely not” itself.
Instead, he called for providing more services to help all students succeed, including finding ways to attract and retain more teachers. He blamed the state’s longtime Republican leaders for creating an atmosphere that drove educators out of the profession.
Hernandez said he doesn’t take the endorsements to mean he should support whatever his backers want, but rather that they like his positions on the issues.
“Our message of parental control over their child’s education, individualized attention for students, and improved school safety resonates clearly with Pasco County voters,” he said via text message. “We look forward to continuing to share our message and vision for the future of Pasco County schools and hope to be successful in November.”
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