Pinellas County School Board race heating up

Interest in the race to replace Carol Cook on the Pinellas County School Board continues to grow, with a fifth hopeful announcing her candidacy for the seat.

Oak Grove Middle School teacher Dawn Douglas, who previously ran three times as a Democrat for Florida House, is the latest aspirant to file paperwork needed to seek the post.

She said she is entering the race, in part, to thwart the rise of the conservative right in education politics.

“Our country, our state and our community are in crisis because of insane leadership,” said Douglas, 72. “I really think we need some people with common sense who will just get us back to ground.”

Douglas is not the only one who sees the seat as a possible swing vote on the board. Two other seats are up for election, with incumbents Laura Hine and Eileen Long facing opposition from the right flank.

Two right-leaning candidates — Stacy Geier and Bronson Oudshoff — have joined the race for Cook’s spot, with Geier saying she hopes to “flip the board” to a “true conservative” majority.

Katie Blaxberg, a former legislative aide to Chris Latvala, also is in the race. Early on, she came under fire from Geier’s supporters, who called her a “fake Republican” as she took a more inclusive stance on issues such as the role of parental rights in schools.

Another educator, retired Tarpon Springs Middle teacher Brad DeCorte, is pursuing the seat as well. Like Douglas, he’s a Democrat and an active teachers union member.

“I think it’s shaping up to be a very interesting race, with people going from one end to the other” politically, said Cook, who so far has declined to support any of the candidates.

She anticipated even more challengers might emerge, because the seat is open. Cook is retiring from the seat, which represents north-central Pinellas, after 24 years. As the field becomes more crowded, getting an outright majority in the August primary becomes exceedingly difficult, Cook said.

She took umbrage at some of the comments that have been made about the race.

“Obviously, there are some who say they want to flip the board,” Cook said. “I’m troubled they say, ‘Flip the ultra-liberal board.’ We aren’t even liberal. ... Without any validity it’s getting out there that we’re a liberal board. That’s bothersome.”

Cook is one of four registered Republicans on the board, which also includes two members with no party affiliation and one Democrat. The seats are nonpartisan but increasingly are not treated that way in election cycles.

Douglas said she does not want to see the board become any more conservative.

The state government has made it difficult enough for teachers to do their jobs, she said, placing too much emphasis on test results and regularly shifting academic standards, while also suggesting that teachers are indoctrinating or grooming children.

“People make these judgments having never stepped into a school,” said Douglas, a member of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association executive board. “It’s frightening, and teachers have to deal with those.”

Many teachers are leaving the profession, she noted, and a number of them who stay are increasingly unhappy. That has a negative effect on children, she said.

She said she would make it a priority to give teachers a place to be listened to when they have concerns. She also spoke of the need to stop teaching to the tests that have become central to many decisions about education in Florida.

“You’re not going to have happy students if you don’t have happy teachers,” Douglas said.

She said she expects the campaign to be a tough one, with a heavy dose of partisan politics.

“I don’t think any election is easy. This one is going to be a little too crazy,” Douglas said. “That’s the problem. We need to un-crazy this, because we have a lot on the line.”