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Education standards, testing biggest point of contention in Pinellas schools debate

SEMINOLE — Low-performing schools need to shape up, career programs need to be expanded and charter schools need to be held accountable. Candidates for Pinellas County’s school board agreed on those topics during their first public forum of the campaign season but disagreed on one big issue: the new Florida Standards and their standardized tests.

Nine of the 11 school board candidates attended the Thursday night at St. Petersburg College’s Digitorium on the Seminole campus. Five of the seven school board seats are up for election, the fifth becoming open after Robin Wikle, who represents north Pinellas in District 4, announced her midterm retirement after six years on the board.

Those attending and answering questions from journalists and community members included District 2 incumbent Terry Krassner and challenger Chris Tauchnitz; District 3 incumbent Peggy O’Shea and challenger Kent Curtis; District 6 incumbent Linda Lerner and challenger Maureen Ahern; and District 4 contenders Beverly Billiris, John Nygren and Ken Peluso.

District 7 school board member Rene Flowers and challenger Irene Olive Cates, a write-in candidate, did not attend the event, one of only a few scheduled before the Aug. 26 election. Instead, the two candidates vying to represent St. Petersburg held their own forum Thursday night at the same time as the SPC event. That forum, sponsored by the Childs Park Neighborhood Association, was held at the Childs Park Recreation Center on 13th Avenue South in St. Petersburg.

The Florida Standards are modeled after the Common Core State Standards that will be adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia and are virtually identical apart from added measures on cursive writing and financial literacy. The standardized tests that go along with the standards are tied to everything from teacher pay to school grades.

The questions are a mix of traditional multiple-choice items and lengthier paragraph responses designed to demonstrate critical thinking. More reading will be required in all test subjects, and answers will have to prove students understand the concepts behind what they are learning and aren’t only regurgitating facts.

“I’m not supportive of Common Core because of the weight it puts on our schools, teachers and students,” said Billiris, a fifth-grade teacher and the former mayor of Tarpon Springs. “We need to take some of the pressure off how much weight is placed on testing. I have students come in literally throwing up because their nervous about these tests.”

The tests, though, provide much-needed accountability for students and teachers, and the new Florida Standard format will only improve students’ progress, Nygren said.

“The two main things with Common Core is to make our kids think and be better problem-solvers, and I think that’s what we need,” Nygren said. “The biggest thing we can do as a county is provide the training our teachers need to meet these needs.”

Long-time school board member Linda Lerner agreed that “the standards themselves are good,” while her challenger Ahern said many of the teachers she’s interacted with complain the standards make them feel more like “facilitators than educators.”

O’Shea and her challenger Curtis both agreed that professional development is key to making the standards work in classrooms and ensuring that schools have strong leadership aligned to the same vision.

Another point of contention between candidates was the issue of whether school officials should be allowed to carry guns on campus. Peluso, Billiris, Nygren, Lerner, O’Shea, Curtis and Krassner opposed allowing guns on school campuses, while Ahern and Tauchnitz said they would support such a measure.

School Board member Krassner said the district should focus on adding more magnet, career and other choice programs before fundamentals to create a more “heterogenous” atmosphere in school, but her challenger Tauchnitz said the school board should add more to meet parent demand.

“I think every school should be fundamental, but since can’t do that we need to listen to what parents want, otherwise they’ll go to charter schools,” he said.

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