The Gathering of Pastors question candidates

Rev. Watson Haynes



ST. PETERSBURG – The Gathering of Pastors hosted a community forum held at Bethel Community Church Tuesday, June 26 to get to know some of the local candidates and see where they stood on important issues.

School Board candidates included Pinellas County School Board Chair René Flowers (District 7), Dr. Bilan Joseph (District 7), Dr. Matthew Stewart (District 6) and Dr. Nicole Carr (District 3, a countywide seat).

Moderated by Rev. Watson Haynes, he reminded the candidates that although the numbers were small in attendance, the pastors present will stand on their pulpits and relay the information.

And although Attorney Evan Frayman, who is running for Sixth Circuit Judge, Group 45, and Vito Sheeley running for State House District 70, were on the panel, the evening focused on Pinellas County Schools.

One of the main issues discussed was strategies they would push to implement if elected to hire and retain teachers. With educators choosing to leave the profession at breakneck speed, communities want to know how teachers will be supported.

All candidates agreed that programs or assistance should be put into place to not only hire qualified teachers but to also retain the qualified teachers already in the schools.

Carr has been a teacher and school counselor in Pinellas County, a Title 1 program evaluator and an assistant principal at Lakewood Elementary. She feels it is important to give teachers the freedom to instruct their students free of overly watchful eyes.

“We need to make sure we’re not implementing policies that micromanage them,” she said, also touting the importance of conducting climate surveys and exit interviews to obtain information of what needs to be addressed.

Bilan, a teacher at Azalea Middle School, feels it is imperative to retain the teachers already in the school system by banning unnecessary assessment and letting teachers teach to learn instead of teaching so students will perform well on state tests.

“I think there is a misconception that because we have struggles in our county that our teachers are not good teachers,” Bilan averred. “We have a lot of hard-working, undervalued, underpaid teachers who are trying to do the best they can under the constraints they are put under.”

Stewart, an adjunct professor at St. Petersburg College, believes increasing teacher pay will go a long way to retain qualified teachers and make the institution of teaching seem enticing to new hires.

Currently, new hires are set to earn $43,000 for the first five years of teaching. After that, the rate of increase is minimal each year, roughly $100 extra dollars.

“That’s a harder sell to get them in,” Stewart pointed out. He also discussed the high rate of increase in teacher health care, which amounts to teachers making less each year as the hike in insurance bypasses any step increase teachers might receive.

Flowers agreed and announced teachers are up to receive a salary increase of more than $4,800 in the upcoming school year. However, in comparison with neighboring Hillsborough County, veteran teachers currently make nearly $10,000 less a year. With little monetary incentive to stay in the district, Flowers hopes to also turn around the increase in healthcare that is drastically cutting into the pay of teachers and staff.

“Humana wants to increase the amount we pay, and we want to make sure that it is not passed along to our teachers,” she said, vowing to look into the matter. “I’m very concerned.”

Money aside, all candidates agree offering support to teachers and providing ongoing professional development will help keep some teachers from leaving the profession.

Another topic discussed was the issue of bringing diversity into the classroom. With more than 42 languages in Pinellas County Schools, there is a need for bilingual educators in the classroom. In addition, there is a shortage of African-American educators in comparison to their white counterparts.

“Many students show up day after day and don’t see anyone who looks like them,” said Dr. Stewart.

But Dr. Bilan cautioned against recruiting black teachers solely for their color.

“Just because someone is African American, don’t assume that they can only teach African Americans,” she said. “A good teacher is a good teacher.”

Mentoring of new teachers was also discussed in hopes of reducing new educators from walking away from the profession. Flowers shared how along with her church, Greater Mt. Zion AME, she takes teachers on a bus ride through certain parts south St. Petersburg to give them a firsthand look at what type of living conditions students have to maneuver to get to school each day.

“Then we have a serious conversation about dedication,” said Flowers, who believes you don’t have to be black to teach an African-American student, just love in your heart. “If we tell our students don’t quit, how are you going to quit as the teacher?”

Questions were taken from the crowd asking what measures would be done to ensure schools were safe for children at all educational levels.

Flowers is not an advocate of armed guards in schools but acknowledges the need with the new law stating that professionals will be in schools capable of discharging a weapon and deterring crime. But Dr. Stewart believes other measures are easier to implement and will make teachers feel safer and better able to protect themselves and their students.

“School doors still don’t lock from the inside,” he reminded, also pointing out the need for mental health services for students. “Teachers have to go outside to lock their doors. This seems a very simple thing we can do.”

The Primary Election is Aug. 28, so be sure to research all the candidates and head out to the polls.

About the organization

The Gathering of Pastors was born out of the violence that plagued St. Petersburg in 2015 when seven young men were killed in less than two months. These men of faith met with elected officials, law enforcement and even youths with gang affiliations for answers. The pastors hold candidate forums, meet with politicians and work towards social justice.

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