Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Education

Three with varied experience vie for Pinellas School Board District 2 seat

Three candidates hope to land the at-large District 2 seat on the Pinellas County School Board: a parent who works in the performing arts, a middle school reading teacher and a former principal who’s served on the board since 2010.

They agree on a few things, such as the need to hold charter schools accountable, strengthen campus security and expand technical programs, but bring varied backgrounds to the race.

Lisa Cane works as a performing arts professional, but it’s her identity as a frustrated parent that drove her to run.

She’s disappointed in the test-obsessed curriculum that she says has cheated her oldest daughter, entering fifth grade, out of humanities courses such as American history.

MORE ELECTION COVERAGE: District 3 candidates see challenges and potential for Pinellas schools

"I was really disappointed, because I sent her into fourth grade knowing what I did in fourth grade just down the road," Cane said. "Pretty much the entire school year was geared around standardized tests."

Cane, 31, grew up in Palm Harbor, attended Pinellas County schools and is married with four children. She teaches musical theater at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Academy. Parents and students at her studio often complain about the downsides to Florida’s test-centric curriculum, she said, such as mandated timetables that constrain teachers and put pressure on students.

"Parents and students are really underrepresented on our School Board," she said.

She would bring a creative perspective, she said. To address racial achievement gaps, she suggested bringing performing arts programs to low-performing schools.

As for school funding, she said the board could look harder at capital projects and tighten up those budgets.

Jeff Larsen, a reading intensive teacher over the county line at New Port Richey’s Gulf Middle, has led the school’s dropout prevention team and coached girls’ and boys’ basketball in his 14-year career there.

Larsen, 41, lives in Tarpon Springs with his two sons, who attend Pinellas schools, and his wife, a former science teacher. There, he’s served two terms as a city commissioner and once as vice mayor.

He recently won the endorsement of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, which has backed no incumbents this year, preferring teachers with recent experience.

"You can forget very, very quickly what it’s actually like in the classroom, working in the trenches," Larsen said.

Too often, he said, teachers are set up to fail — particularly in the county’s most troubled schools, feeding the cycle of poor outcomes. He supports deeper training and resources for new teachers, as well as more volunteers and co-teachers in struggling schools.

"One of the things I’m just horrified by — it makes me sick to my stomach — is when I hear about some children who go through three, four, five, even six teachers in a school year," he said.

To boost morale and retention, he wants better school climate surveys and exit interviews, as well as more nuanced evaluations. He also wants a focus on "learning, not testing."

Incumbent Terry Krassner was elected to the board in 2010 and again in 2014, having spent her career as a teacher and then as a principal, retiring in 2008 from Westgate Elementary School. She says her time on the board, plus her family’s deep roots in Pinellas education, has built trust. Her four children attended county schools.

"People know that they can call me," she said. "I want to be there for our families."

Krassner, 66, of Largo, said she prioritizes school safety and investing in students and teachers. She’s proud of the board’s work in bringing back summer programs, as well as boosting business partnerships and technical programs. She’d like to keep expanding those, with an eye toward reducing the achievement gap.

"There shouldn’t be a student out there that does not see something that catches their eye and gets them excited and motivated about learning," Krassner said.

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She wants to see more work on closing the achievement gap, emphasizing strong school leadership, magnet programs and high-quality pre-K. She also stresses the need to expand support for students in need of extra attention — also a key in campus safety, she said.

As for school security, one of voters’ biggest priorities this year, all three candidates support better-fortified campus entrances and more training, including lockdown drills.

All three also support expanding trade school opportunities and partnerships for students, especially those who may not pursue college. And all three said charter schools need more oversight.

"If it’s good for us, it should be good for any one other source that takes money away from our schools," Krassner said.

Pinellas voters will have their say in the August 28 primary election. If no candidate takes more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will head to a runoff.

So far, Larsen has the most money in his campaign coffers, with $19,255. Krassner is sitting at $5,645 and Cane at $2,550. The School Board position paid $44,163 last year. Terms last four years.

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com.

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