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Election could change Pinellas School Board

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— With five seats up for election and a handful of new names already entering the race, the Pinellas County School Board could look very different next year.

School Board members Terry Krassner, Peggy O’Shea, Linda Learner and Rene Flowers are up for re-election in November, and board member Robin Wikle plans to retire midterm after six years on the board.

Former Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverley Billiris, 66, and former Early Learning Coalition Chairman Ken Peluso, 57, of Palm Harbor have entered the race to replace Wikle in District 4.

Peluso, a retired chiropractor, has served as chairman of the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County, the Palm Harbor Chamber of Commerce Education Committee and Government Affairs Committee, and the Palm Harbor Foundation board, which focuses on educational scholarships.

Peluso is a board member for Calvary Christian High School in Clearwater and on the advisory councils for East Lake High, Carwise Middle and Highland Lakes Elementary schools.

He said he would like the school district to focus more on alternative education programs, such as industry certifications and career academies.

“Not a high percentage of college graduates are finding jobs, so we need to offer relevant programs that capture our students’ interest,” said Peluso, who lost the 2008 school board election to Wikle by a half percentage point.

“The primary goal of the school board, as I see it, isn’t to micromanage, but to lead the district by watching what we spend and where we spend it, and making sure our priorities are focused on preparing our children for their future,” he said.

Billiris, a fifth-grade teacher at Tarpon Springs Elementary School, has taught elementary school for about 10 years before leaving temporarily to become vice mayor and mayor of Tarpon Springs and chairwoman of the Pinellas Planning Council — positions that could give the school board “a fiscally conservative perspective” and “insight into classrooms,” she said.

She said county schools are lacking in preparing teachers for the new Florida Standards of education based on the nationwide Common Core. The district needs to pay closer attention to “teaching instead of testing,” and stop promoting students before they’re ready, she said.

“This year they rolled out Common Core the first couple weeks of school, but there wasn’t enough professional development for teachers,” said Billiris, who teaches in a Title 1 school, those with a high percentage of students living in poverty.

Flowers, a two-year board member of St. Petersburg, will face Irene Olive Cates, 30, of St. Petersburg for the District 7 seat, and Chris Tauchnitz of Oldsmar has filed to run against District 2 incumbent Krassner.

Tauchnitz, 46, a senior software engineer for VeriFone, is an Army veteran and husband of Palm Harbor Middle School teacher Jenifer Tauchnitz. A graduate of Boca Ciega High School, Tauchnitz has two sons, ages 4 and 8, and is a volunteer in Oldsmar Elementary’s PTA and Dad’s Club, as well as a Cub Scout leader. There are too many “fads” in county schools that have yet to be proven, Tauchnitz said, such as the flipped-school model proposed at the new Gulf Beaches and Kings Highway elementary technology magnets.

“We need to look at what parents want. More students are waiting on lists for fundamental schools then the current technology magnets, but Kings Highway was recommended to open as a fundamental school in 2010 and was voted down,” Tauchnitz said.

Cates, who owns the nonprofit, St. Petersburg-based organization Cates Enterprises Movement Change, said schools should find more innovative, hands-on ways to teach students to become “producers instead of consumers,” whether through planting gardens and learning about healthy lifestyles or teaching about community issues and needs. A key component to success is finding more ways to include parents, she said.

“The breakdown occurs when the children come home from school and have homework that parents can’t help with because they don’t know themselves and there’s a breakdown,” said Cates. “Even if the parents are educated, nowadays students are learning in a way that’s very different from what parents learned in school. Right now there’s a generational gap, and the school district has to take a more aggressive approach to make a difference.”

Krassner, a board member for four years, O’Shea, a member for eight years, and Learner, a board member for 24 years, have yet to file for re-election. The qualifying is June 20 for the Nov. 4 election. Board Chairwoman Carol Cook and member Janet Clark are not up for election this year.

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