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With last week’s election results, the Pinellas County School Board is losing decades of institutional knowledge while welcoming three newcomers who will bring new ideas and different perspectives. This is a major upheaval for a district that has been on a positive trajectory. The new board should quickly commit to working together and keep its focus on closing the achievement gap, maintaining sound financial footing and improving the climate in schools.
The retirement of Linda Lerner and election defeats of Terry Krassner and Peggy O’Shea mean a lot of experience guiding Pinellas schools is walking out the door. Together, they have 48 years of service. Voters replaced Lerner with Bill Dudley, a former high school wrestling coach and St. Petersburg City Council member who benefited from name recognition; Lisa Cane, a parent of kids in public school who ran on a platform of increasing arts and music education; and Nicole Carr, who has been a counselor, research specialist and assistant principal in Pinellas and holds advanced degrees in education. Their varied perspectives should benefit board decisions, but all will face a learning curve as they transition from the campaign trail to the dais.
The makeover of the board also gives a greater role to veteran member Carol Cook, who has served since 2000, and current chair Rene Flowers, who has been on since 2012 and won re-election this year. Their experience and memory should be considered valuable resources. Superintendent Mike Grego will also have a balancing act as he implements the board’s policy but may have to educate newer members about the limits of their authority under numerous state mandates.
Still, there is work to do and a need for fresh ideas. At long-struggling schools where the focus is on helping African-American students catch up with their white peers, school staff need guidance on how to increase parental involvement. Poor teacher morale was a common complaint throughout the campaign. State mandates and an overemphasis on standardized tests contribute to that, but the district should make every effort to establish a climate where teachers are treated as professionals, which will help with recruitment and retention. Letting teachers teach and reducing standardized testing that is not required by the state would help.
The departure of veteran board members creates some uncertainty on a School Board that has been functioning well lately. The voters have elected three newcomers, who should seek to keep that momentum going while working together to solve the district’s most persistent problems and help every student achieve.