ST. PETERSBURG — School board member Terry Krassner has spent her life in Pinellas County schools.
Her father, Lee Benjamin, was a well-respected school board member, and her mother, Felice Benjamin, a long-time middle and high school teacher. Krassner was a principal at Westgate Elementary for 17 years and has worked as a teacher, assistant principal and administrator in the county for 36 years.
Krassner, 62, now is campaigning to defend her District 2 seat in the Aug. 26 election against Chris Tauchnitz, 46, a senior software engineer with VeriFone Inc. for 19 years.
Tauchnitz is a political newcomer and has never worked in education, yet as a PTA member at Oldsmar Elementary and the husband of a Pinellas teacher has “quietly observed” for years.
School board races, because they are nonpartisan, will be decided in the primary election and are open to all registered voters.
Tauchnitz decided to run for school board Nov. 7, 2010, when board members narrowly voted against reopening King’s Highway Elementary School as a fundamental school for 550 students on waiting lists for Curtis Fundamental Elementary. Krassner was one of the dissenting votes, though her stepchildren attend Osceola Fundamental.
“Each year there are thousands of students on the waiting list for fundamental seats,” Tauchnitz said. “We need to give parents what they want, otherwise they’re just going to go to private or charter schools.”
Tauchnitz’s goal is to increase parental involvement and spread fundamental schools, which set high academic expectations for students, as well as requirements for parent participation, he said.
Krassner said adding fundamental schools would create silos of high performing students. Instead, the school district should continue expanding its career academies and magnet programs, like the technology magnet opening at King’s Highway. Her stepson is on the path to an internship at Lockheed Martin through the school district’s career education programs, she said, and firing up students about their career opportunities has boosted high school graduation, even with special education students.
“When you can find what is really going to keep our students motivated to stay in school, and you’re letting them know what’s out there in the real world, it’s an incredibly exciting thing,” Krassner said. “Programs like these get students excited about their education and create diverse environments in our schools. They aren’t all gifted students.”
Yet opening more of these programs doesn’t address the issue of parental involvement, Tauchnitz said, and could create “two-tiered” schools where magnet and non-magnet students don’t mingle.
“As a parent, I can tell you it’s not exactly inviting to come into our classrooms. It’s a bit intimidating if you aren’t in the education system,” he said. “At the end of the day, the first educator in any child’s life is a parent and, until we get those parents involved, we aren’t going to change anything.”
Now that all schools are close to home schools, it should be easier to reach parents through school events that could benefit the entire family, like a “literacy night” for kids scheduled with a “job fair night” for adults, Tauchnitz said. The school district also could take measures like absorbing the $50 fingerprinting and background check fee for parent volunteers.
The Oldsmar Elementary PTA claims more than half of the school’s parents as members, and regularly hosts family nights and other events to get “parent’s engaged early on” and “eliminate the fear factor,” Tauchnitz said.
In the four years Krassner has been on the school board, she said she has seen principals make huge strides in reaching out to families. Staff at schools such as Dunedin Elementary have gone door-to-door handing out school supplies and introducing themselves to families, she said. District initiatives like the Summer Bridge summer school program, the Lew Williams early childhood center, and free laptop computers to families of third- through fifth-graders also help parents see schools as a family resource, she said.
“I was a principal in a Title 1 school in Jordan Park, and we didn’t wait for the parents to come to us, we went into the community and built those relationships, and I loved what we created,” Krassner said. “We made sure we had transportation for families, baby sitters on event nights, and we had great parental involvement. I think we’re seeing more of this in the whole county.”
Krassner has gained endorsements from the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, Pinellas Educational Support Professionals Association, the Florida Public Services Union/SEIU, and the Pinellas Realtor Organization.
“We know we’re not where we need to be yet, but we’re putting more and more in place each year and you can’t do it all in one year,” Krassner said.
For Tauchnitz, there already are too many educators on the board, with five of the seven current members having an education background. The board needs a parent’s insight on the issues that affect their children, he said.
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