Educating Race

The Pinellas County School Board's District 4 election race slipped out of the Republican Party's control long before the September primary.That came as a shock to local Republicans. After all, their campaign strategy seemed foolproof: When Tom Todd died last October and left a vacancy on the school board, Gov. Jeb Bush appointed 38-year-old Janice Starling, a daycare center owner with a background in education. The Republicans wanted to position her to be the first African-American elected to the school board.

Starling, however, was not the first African-American to sit on the board. Moses Stith, an Eckerd College professor, was the first black appointed to the board, but he lost in his subsequent election bid in 1978.

Although Pinellas County School Board elections are nonpartisan, the political parties play as much of a part as in any other race. Generally, the parties act behind the scenes. This year, however, they accepted a starring role.

The Republicans believed an incumbent Starling was a shoo-in for the District 4 seat. But on Sept. 10, Starling duplicated Stith's fate.

The hints of problems were evident long before that.

The first came from Mary Brown, who had narrowly lost a school board race against Nancy Bostock in 1998. Brown had told Pinellas Republican Chairman Paul Bedinghaus that she wouldn't run for the seat if the GOP gave an African-American the gubernatorial appointment. Brown, an African-American and Democrat, later changed her mind and announced her candidacy against Starling.

"She was instrumental in defeating an African-American school board member," Bedinghaus says of Brown. "I find it hypocritical that she now wants help to put an African-American on the school board."

The second problem came from Tiffany Todd, daughter of the late Tom Todd and County Commission Chairwoman Barbara Sheen Todd. When Todd hinted that she would run for her late father's seat, local Republicans tried to persuade her to fall in line with the party and support Starling. Todd wasn't swayed.

On Sept. 10, Starling finished third in a close race of five candidates. She finished 895 votes behind Brown and 2,831 behind Todd.

Because no one candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote, the District 4 race has moved to a runoff between Brown and Todd on Nov. 5.

Brown, a 66-year-old mother of five and educator with experience ranging from kindergarten to occupational training, has devoted her life to teaching. She's running her campaign on a clear set of issues and ideas.

Todd, a 24-year-old Pinellas-educated nurse and mother of three, would bring a youthful energy to the school board, but she doesn't have any experience in education. Additionally, while Todd is obviously concerned for the county's students, her stances are muddled.

The debate over class sizes serves as a good example.

Brown supports Amendment Nine, which would limit class sizes, though she realizes the constitutional dictate would burden Florida's counties. "But if it's not in the constitution, we'll find a way of not doing it," she says.

Todd, meanwhile, does not support the constitutional amendment. "I'm afraid it will turn into an unfriendly mandate," she says.

The school board should make it a priority to decrease class sizes, Todd says, but the state should not dictate policy to the counties. The school board should analyze its problems and find solutions.

But you need to have a plan to decrease class sizes, says Brown, who believes the school board should focus on kindergarten to fifth grade.

"We want (students) to leave fifth grade with good basic skills, good listening skills and good cognoscente skills," Brown says. "If they leave fifth grade with those good skills, I think middle school will not be as great a problem."

Brown and Todd also disagree about Gov. Bush's grading system for schools.

"Testing is supposed to be used to determine what the needs of the students are, not what the performance of the school is," says Brown. If a school cannot meet standards, the school board should find ways to correct the problems, not punish students and teachers, Brown says. "If you have schools with an F, what does an A mean?"

Todd, while not willing to endorse all of the governor's methods, believes that grading should continue, but the state and county shouldn't rely so heavily on those grades.

"Grading the schools can be improved," says Todd, who couldn't expound on the idea.

Add district elections to the list of the candidates' disagreements. In November, voters will decide whether to change the school board from seven at-large seats to a combination of four district and three at-large seats. Currently, all school board members are elected countywide, meaning Palm Harbor residents help to decide the district representative for St. Petersburg and vice versa.

Brown believes districting will bring better accountability to the school board, while Todd maintains that school board members should be elected at-large since their decisions affect all county schools.

Noteworthy here is the fact that district campaigns are cheaper to run than countywide campaigns. Logic follows wallets. Todd, who benefits from her recognizable surname, has raised nearly three times more funds than her opponent.

Brown is a textbook liberal, while Todd is a cookie-cutter conservative. This year's decision should be based on political ideology, not name recognition.

While it's encouraging that someone as young as Todd has entered public life, her lack of experience and ideas makes her unqualified for the position.

The Pinellas County School Board needs someone with fresh ideas and the strength to stand behind them. Brown, whose previous experience has groomed her for the seat, is the woman for the job. That electing her would break the color barrier at the school board is but an added benefit.

Contact Staff Writer Trevor Aaronson at 813-248-8888, ext. 134, or e-mail him at [email protected].

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