ST. PETERSBURG — Linda Lerner is the longest-serving school board member in Pinellas County history, having put in 24 years, and now she is seeking four more.
Yet the board’s vice chairwoman faces a challenger in her run for a seventh term in District 6, which stretches across central Pinellas areas of Seminole, parts of Pinellas Park, Largo, Clearwater, St. Petersburg and the beaches from Redington Shores south. The election, open only to those living in the district, will be held Aug. 26.
Maureen Ahern, a former newspaper journalist and wife of Republican state Rep. Larry Ahern, thinks it’s time for a “new voice” on Pinellas education and sees the latest statistics on low-performing schools as evidence.
“We have some excellent schools with great teachers and incredible students, but I want all of our students to experience this. Too many of our students are struggling, with about half of Pinellas third-graders failing in reading and math, yet we keep hearing it’s going to take more time before things get better,” said Ahern, 54. “Our children don’t have more time; they only get one childhood education.”
This past school year, Pinellas had 16 schools on the Florida Department of Education’s list of the 300 lowest-performing schools for reading gains. Five were in the lowest 25, and Melrose Elementary was deemed the worst in the state. The school district has spent years battling a large achievement gap between black and white students, and it’s time to “figure out what to do and just do it, not keep talking about it,” Ahern said.
Ahern contends that her experience as a journalist has trained her to ask questions and dig for answers.
Lerner, 71, said she has built her career “asking the tough questions” and pushing for reforms as the school board has gone through multiple superintendents and administrative upheaval.
“One thing you can say about me is I have been persistent,” Lerner said. “Sometimes it’s taken three or four years to make something happen, but I haven’t given up. And one thing I’m talking about now, especially in elementary schools, is more art, music, creativity, projects.”
Were it not for Lerner, there might be no evening school board meetings, intended to allow working parents the opportunity to attend, or workshops every other week where members spend hours publicly discussing issues. Lerner also spent years advocating for a comprehensive strategic plan that’s tied not only to school goals but also the school budget. Now, under Superintendent Michael Grego, the district has such a plan.
Ahern argues that in the decades Lerner has been on the board, initiatives such as the strategic plan should have happened much sooner and there is “no sense of urgency.”
Both candidates are advocates for more career and vocational education, with Lerner sitting on the career education board since 2008, but they disagree on a number of other issues.
Ahern wants to see more fundamental schools, which demand parent involvement and strict discipline, and said she would allow charter schools to take over struggling public schools, whereas Lerner would not. Ahern supports allowing guns on campuses for school employees; Lerner does not.
Ahern said that with the new Florida Standards, teachers are becoming “facilitators instead of educators.” She decried the school board’s “lack of attention” to students’ low standardized tests scores.
Lerner often speaks out against the amount of state-required standardized testing. She pushed for the school district to reduce the number of tests and to try a new teacher evaluation system that isn’t so dependent on test scores. “It’s one test on one day,” Lerner said.
Ahern does not have a background in education but worked briefly as a substitute teacher at a private school and has about 20 years of experience as a local journalist. A world traveler, Ahern also holds a real estate license to co-manage commercial properties with her husband and serves with a number of community organizations.
Lerner taught in New York and Pinellas and also founded the Resource Center for Women in Pinellas in 1977.