Battle of the incumbents

Pinellas board disagreements prompt a schoolyard fight.

I hate school board races.

Or at least I did when I was a political consultant.

In what lingers as one of the biggest ironies in a Florida political system wrought with irony, the local school boards have the toughest job in the state, dealing with the No. 1 issue consistently in polling, education.

Yet, due to reforms a decade ago, school boards really have very little substantive power. Standards and assessment issues are decided in Tallahassee, as is much of the funding equation. Principals and parents have been empowered through the school advisory councils. That leaves school boards to deal with such crap issues as rezoning kids out of their neighborhood schools, wrangling with religious holidays on the calendar and cutting jobs from the budget.

Fun.

In politics, school board is an entry-level job. It attracts mostly inexperienced politicians whose passion is education. Sometimes they are angry parents; sometimes angry teachers. Most don't go on to other public offices, and most lack the skills needed to navigate this political minefield. And worst (from my former perspective), they have no ability to raise money for their campaigns. Big special interests have almost zero interest in the school board.

So it is with some surprise that I see that at the Pinellas County School Board, not only do two incumbents want to remain in that godforsaken office, they are running against each other for the privilege to do so.

After a voter-approved change a few years ago that made the Pinellas School Board nonpartisan, Nancy Bostock finds herself with several opponents, including her fellow board member Mary Russell.

The two could not be more different, and the race has implications for the future of Superintendent Clayton Wilcox and all the schoolchildren in Pinellas.

Bostock is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republican, a Christian politician who has supported Gov. Jeb Bush's educational reforms and has backed Wilcox. She fought against the 2004 referendum to raise taxes for higher teacher salaries.

Russell is a Democrat, a 35-year-old former teacher who helped found Teachers United for the Future, better known as TUFF-Teach, an advocacy group and online forum for teachers. She and fellow TUFF-Teacher/board member Janet Clark have been the loudest voices for change, and question Wilcox's performance regularly. Russell doesn't share the governor's zeal for his reforms, even going as far as refusing to allow her children to take the FCAT. She supported the 2004 tax referendum.

Russell and Clark and the critical voices at TUFF-Teach have stood in contrast to the rest of the school board and in opposition to Wilcox's style, which could best be described as Rumsfeldian in its tendency to dictate reforms and upset school employees. That's not to say change wasn't — and isn't — needed in Pinellas schools, although even some Wilcox supporters question why he hasn't produced more of it.

But Russell and her TUFF-Teach allies stand apart from the rest of the board, the superintendent and much of the system. When, for instance, school board member Jane Galluci was inaugurated as the president of the National School Boards Association in April, Wilcox and her fellow board members — except for Russell and Clark — joined her in Chicago.

The relationship between Russell and Bostock at meetings runs to the confrontational. For those living in Tampa, think Ronda Storms and Kathy Castor.

So why would Russell choose to challenge Bostock and not run for the one open seat on the board? Why not keep a safe seat and remain a voice of protest on the board? After all, Bostock announced first, and Russell could have avoided the confrontation, even if she has never shied away from arguing publicly with Bostock at school board meetings.

In her announcement in early April, Russell told the St. Petersburg Times that she and Bostock "value different things" and that one way or another, the school board must get on the same page in order to move forward.

Russell wasn't returning my calls last week, so I turned to several observers of Pinellas school politics to get a consensus on exactly why this fight has come to a head. They offered three broad explanations:

Partisan Politics: As I said above, Bostock is a Republican and Russell is a Democrat. In heavily Republican Pinellas, most believe that Russell wouldn't be in office today if voters had not made the office nonpartisan. And she beat a Republican and former Christian private school headmaster, Max Gessner, in 2002 in a surprising upset over a better-financed opponent. Partisanship might not be listed on the ballot, but it remains a factor in this race. Bostock has raised $18,000, mostly from recognizable Republicans.

Political Suicide: Russell hints at this explanation in her announcement when she acknowledges that one way or the other, the school board must pull together. If she loses, not only does she not have to serve in a trying situation, she becomes the first TUFF-Teach martyr.

Consider Russell's recent statement in a public posting on TUFF-Teach:

"There is a chip on my shoulder," Russell wrote. "I have been hurt. I could bring you to tears with my woe-is-me story. I could have easily turned into a bitter, mean, nasty hater of mankind. But, I didn't."

Shifting the board away from Wilcox: Finally, there is the matter of the superintendent. Wilcox has disappointed some of those folks who supported his hiring (including Russell), but he still has the votes of four of the seven school board members. (He never had Linda Lerner's vote, as she was the lone ballot against his hiring.) Lerner, Russell and Clark voted against a one-year extension of Wilcox's contract but were on the losing side, 4-3.

Taking out Bostock could provide a fourth vote the other way, and in March, Wilcox openly worried to the Times that his job was hanging on the 2006 election. He was quoted in March as saying, "It doesn't matter that we've moved the district along. Some of it has been reduced to a personal dislike of me."

Russell responded on TUFF-Teach.

"I don't think it's a FACT that I attack, go after, hunt ... the Superintendent," Russell wrote. "But, the spin seems to be that I do in fact, attack the superintendent. Why? I'm not 'out to get' anybody. It's not my nature. Being 'out to get' someone means that you use your creativity and energy to plot the demise of another person. I find that line of logic to be somewhat psychopathic, more than a little bit desperate and a complete waste of my time and talent."

Disclosure: The author served as consultant to former school board member Max Gessner's first campaign. As the result of a falling out, he did not work in Gessner's 2002 campaign against Mary Russell. Political Whore can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].