ST. PETERSBURG — In a Pinellas County School Board election that has shown few distinctions among candidates, the claws came out Thursday during a Suncoast Tiger Bay Club forum regarding everything from low performing schools to religion in the classroom.
“If we had to give our current school board a letter grade I think it would be a D,” said Tiger Bay Club member Tiffany Faykus as she opened up the question-and-answer session with 10 of the 11 candidates. Incumbent Peggy O’Shea, diagnosed recently with breast cancer, was advised by her doctor to rest.
The question that won the club’s coveted Tiger award as the toughest to answer was “yes” or “no”: Should creationism be taught in science classes?
Ken Peluso, a retired chiropractor, was first to answer and the only candidate to reply, “yes.” Peluso is running against former Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverly Billiris and retired high school math teacher John Nygren in District 4. Incumbent Robin Wikle is retiring mid-term.
“I think creationism and evolution should be taught side-by-side. I don’t care what classroom,” Peluso said. “If evolutionism is being taught, then creationism should be taught in contrast. Every student should know all of the facts and then decide what they believe.”
Peluso served on the school board for Calvary Christian High School in Clearwater from 2010-13.
Asked after the forum if he would stand by his answer given the other candidates’ resounding “no’s,” he said, “absolutely.”
Maureen Ahern, a former newspaper journalist and wife of state Rep. Larry Ahern, was asked about a statement at an earlier debate that the school district should involve religious leaders in low-performing schools.
“I didn’t say bring religious leaders into the school. I said include them in solving why some of our struggling schools are doing so poorly. I would not bring them into the schools,” said Ahern, who is running against 24-year board member Linda Lerner in District 6.
Ahern questioned why, given Lerner’s long tenure on the board, the school district developed a strategic plan only in the past year.
“My opponent has implied that when someone has served as long as I have, you lose your sparkle, but I don’t think someone that’s lost their sparkle would do as well on the school board as I have, and occasionally win a tiger from the Tiger Bay Club,” said Lerner, a long-time Tiger Bay Club member. “I don’t think we need a new voice, my voice is OK. I have the same voice, but I’m more knowledgeable and more experienced now.”
Parental involvement dominated the forum, with parent volunteers Kip Curtis, District 3, and Chris Tauchnitz, District 2, challenging incumbents O’Shea and Terry Krassner, respectively, to do more to involve parents in the classroom, saying parents are “furious” with the state of education.
“I spent 17 years as a principal of a school with struggling students and, as much as we wanted our parents to be involved, they still wouldn’t come,” Krassner said. “We’re trying to make independent learners from kindergarten on, send books home and laptops home, but showing them how to use it and making sure they can do the work whether parents are there or not.”
Nygren pointed out that school board members make about $42,000 a year.
“It takes a school teacher 12 years to make as much as a school board member,” Nygren said. “I find that ridiculous and think it should be cut drastically.”
The school board seats will be decided during the Aug. 26 primary election. Incumbent Rene Flowers in District 7 will face write-in candidate Irene Olive Cates in the Nov. 4 election.