ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas School Board candidates fielded questions about school security, educational inequity and retaliation in a wide-ranging Thursday evening forum at Pinellas Technical College.
A dozen candidates, spread across four races, offered their approaches to reducing the achievement gap between white and minority students, which lingers despite ongoing district efforts.
One of the most popular comments of the night came from Nicole Carr, an educational specialist running in District 3, open to all county voters.
"Separate is not equal," she said, as attendees began to applaud. After years in district administration, said she's watched inequity hold steady.
"The data has barely moved when you look at proficiency," she said. "We continue to have a lot of brand-new teachers working in our schools and lot of high-need students at high density."
To address the achievement gap, many candidates said they would focus on teacher retention and training.
"When a teacher leaves, they get replaced by a brand new teacher with zero experience," said Jeff Larsen of District 2, advocating for mentorship.
Lisa Cane, a performing arts instructor and parent, said that a relentless focus on reading and math testing, at the expense of the broader humanities, is deepening the gap.
"Students who are talented in other arenas are being left behind and made to feel like failures," she said.
Hosted by the NAACP and the League of Women Voters, the event had candidates from at-large Districts 2 and 3, open to the entire county, go first. Peggy O'Shea, the incumbent in District 3, was absent. Then organizers invited up candidates from District 6, which covers parts of Largo, Seminole and the southern gulf beaches, and District 7, which covers south St. Petersburg neighborhoods.
Discussion of inequity dominated the forum, along with questions about retaliation.
After a panelist asked, "How would you ensure teachers do not retaliate against students who stand up for themselves?", special needs teacher Lorena Grizzle demurred.
"Teachers love students," she said. "I can't even imagine that that would happen. … I'm sorry I didn't have that experience to be able to talk about it."
Competitor Matt Stewart, raising his eyebrows at Grizzle's answer, said that, after four questions about retaliation against students and parents, the district clearly needs to talk openly about broken trust.
Former City Councilman and coach Bill Dudley said he didn't see a lot of retaliation.
"I don't think it's running rampantly," he said.
Moderator Christopher Warren emphasized to candidates that these questions were those most commonly asked by the community.
"Just understand, these are the most prevalent questions in our community," he said. "If it's something you don't believe in, maybe you want to take an opportunity to challenge what you currently believe."
Nearly all candidates, except Dudley and teacher Nicholas Wright, said that teachers sometimes use grading tools to bully or retaliate against students or their parents.
Dudley said the district is making good progress on the achievement gap and would benefit from stronger attendance policies. Grizzle suggested more co-teaching and community engagement, and two-term incumbent Terry Krassner said more teacher training has been helping.
Others offered more detailed ideas. Stewart rattled off plans to boost culturally responsive teaching, fully implement restorative justice practices, recruit and retain a diverse staff and offer more transparency in school performance before getting cut off for time.
District 7 incumbent and board chairwoman Rene Flowers said that the board needs to emphasize core skills such as reading, boost early learning and be a strong voice in Tallahassee to push for less testing. She praised the district's work in choice programs and trade opportunities, but said she wants to see deeper partnerships with parents.
Competitor Bilan Joseph, a teacher, said schools need to stop being blinded by school grades and focus instead on getting students reading at grade level.
"If they can't read, all these other things that you're doing are null and void," Joseph said. She also advocated for more digital tools and co-teaching.
Carl Zimmermann, a retired journalism teacher of three decades running in District 3, said schools need a lower student-to-teacher ratio, especially for kids in need. And he said he's never seen such a negative climate for teachers, given "gotcha" evaluations used to punish.
Violence prevention specialist Tharius Keith Bethel said that, as someone who struggled in middle school, he sees himself in the students now he works with. He said the district needs to update its education tools to fit today's needs.