Pinellas County School Board member candidates answer questions

L-R, Bill Dudley, Dr. Matthew Stewart, Joanne Lentino and Dr. Chris Warren

BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – In the first half of the Before the Ballot South St. Pete Candidate Forum, the Pinellas County School Board, District 1 candidates were taken to task. Candidates included Joanne Lentino, Dr. Matthew Stewart and Bill Dudley. The candidates fielded questions concerning discrimination, staff turnover and even cursive writing.

Moderator Dr. Christopher Warren of the “Figuring It Out for the Child” organization said the forum comes at a “tenuous” time for the county in terms of education, with the “failure factories” shadow still looming over Pinellas.

Lentino, who moved to Florida in 2003, found work as a substitute teacher and the experience inspired her to want to be in the classroom full time.

“I was committed to helping children in education,” she said in her opening comments, adding that she spent ten years as a teacher and continued to work as a volunteer at area schools Gulfport, Melrose and Lakewood.

Stewart, a Pinellas native who has classroom experience and has worked for nonprofits, is a foster parent.

“We’ve been foster parents over the years because it’s my way to say, ‘I care deeply about the children in our community and I’m willing to have them in my home and to care for them and to make sure they get a quality education while they’re here.”

Former city councilman Dudley pointed out that he is the only candidate who has taught at all three levels: elementary, junior high and high school.

“Experience is a great teacher,” he said, noting that he had racked up 38 years of it in the classroom and the time he spent on city council also has given him the experience on how to govern and work with budgets.

Concerning the possible consequences of replacing the principals and teachers at the five “failure factory” schools, Dudley said that continuity is important and noted that principals and teachers should be given a minimum of five years to sustain that crucial continuity.

“The students will benefit from it,” he said, “because they will have some continuity in the school. It takes a while to get the engine up and running.”

Stewart said the community needs to be involved in the process when it comes to replacing and appointing principals.

“Simply dropping in a new principal—especially one from out of state—into one of our local schools is not an effective solution to helping those schools improve,” he stated.

Lentino added that in her experience, a “top-down management” approach simply does not work.

“We cannot change things from the outside,” she said, “we have to look at things and children from the inside out. I don’t care how much money you throw at schools, I don’t care how many times you change teachers or principals, you have to look at the child. And that’s where the growth and healing begins.”

Dudley and Stewart supported the Eight Is Enough referendum for school board members, which promotes turnover and consequently, new ideas, and Lentino said that the school board should be accountable just like its members hold teachers accountable.

“Where is their evaluation?” she said to applause from the crowd, adding: “People need to recognize that if you’re not meeting the expectations of the public, you’re not meeting the expectations of the voters, you need to step aside.”

If a school decides to keep its hardworking principals and teachers, what can be done to support them?

Stewart condemned the decisions of school boards to simply replace teachers, saying it is not giving them the proper respect. But even new teachers could use support.

“We need to provide mentors to our teachers,” Stewart said. “New teachers are coming into the schools and it’s not the easiest job nowadays.”

Lentino said there is no due process for first-year teachers, and if the school board is not giving teachers the opportunity to get better in their first year with significant and meaningful training, the board will just remove them. The school board must have a better relationship with the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, she said.

“It’s not about changing people around,” she said. “It’s about keeping them and training them.”

Building teacher morale is key, Dudley noted, and this includes giving them better health insurance. Teachers should also be allowed to appeal evaluations, he said.

Concerning the issue of the disproportionate amount of disciplinary measures handed out to black students in Pinellas for offenses, Stewart said he is favor of instituting a disciplinary matrix to help combat institutional racism.

“A disciplinary matrix says, ‘If you commit this type of offense in our school, this is the discipline that’s measured.”

This straightforward offenses-and-consequences discipline removes that arbitrary punishment that’s viewed as institutional and racial discipline, he said, adding that such a measure has been put into practice elsewhere and needs to be implanted in Pinellas.

“We need to ask ourselves why does the behavior escalate?” Lentino said. “And the P word shouldn’t be punishment but poverty,” Lentino said. “Maybe the poverty child comes in with other issues, maybe the poverty child comes in with other problems, maybe the poverty child needs more than a punishment down to the office!”

Though she believes in consequences, Lentino said that we need to look deeper than just handing out punishments.

Lentino said she would back funding to improve early childhood learning centers, and in support of these centers, the minimum wage must be raised. Stewart said that the community needs children to come in from early childhood learning centers that are going to start strong in school, because when children come in already behind, the schools try to play catch up for 13 years. Stewart, along with Dudley, also advocates a minimum wage hike.

Concerning discrimination, Stewart explained that school board members must be aware of all forms of it, as he even is against the practice of sending fliers to students electronically, as poor, black families are among a demographic that doesn’t always have easy access to computers.

“Let’s look at the diversity amongst our teaching staff,” Lentino said, “let’s look and see what the ratio is amongst the various cultures that are represented in our teaching staff…when we don’t have an equal representation of our school body and our classroom body to our administration and teaching body, then we’ve got a problem, don’t you think?”

Implementing training and workshops that talk about cultural competence would be a step in combatting the problem of implicit racial bias within the school system, Stewart said.

“We need to begin to reflect the communities in which we’re teaching in,” he added.

Biases and prejudices are a product of an individual’s environment and upbringing, Dudley noted.

“The only way you change those things is to educate people,” he said.

Addressing the continuing stigma of the county’s “failure factories,” Stewart said implementing a longer instructional day and providing students with individual mentors are keys.

“We need real solutions that are research-based that are not just the flavor of the month like a magnet program,” he said.

Dudley agreed that the school day should be extended, along with a prolonged recess time to reward children.

“We’re setting the bar too high for kindergarten,” Lentino said, in stressing the need for early childhood education. “If these children are not prepared by first grade and not engaged in school they have lost focus, they have lost motivation and we just see that problem being perpetuated as they continue on into the school system.”

One of the most basic issues addressed concerned cursive writing and the fact that it’s no longer being taught in schools. Dudley wants to see it taught once again, and said it is a “pet peeve” of his that is has been removed from the curriculums. Lentino noted that many educators felt compelled to give up teaching cursive to cover all the mandated material.

“Teachers have to start standing up for what’s right for their children,” she said.

Stewart suggested that students be required to use cursive for all subjects across the curriculum, even math, when written answers are required. Employers are still looking for that, he said.

“Our students need to be ready when they emerge into the workforce,” he said.

The primary election will take place on Aug. 30.

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