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Three vie for District 4 school board seat

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Published:   |   Updated: August 15, 2014 at 09:49 AM

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— Three candidates, all with education backgrounds, are competing to represent the Tarpon Springs, Palm Harbor and Safety Harbor area on the Pinellas County School Board.

The candidates emerged quickly after board member Robin Wikle announced in February that she would retire from the District 4 seat halfway through her second term. The election is Aug. 26.

Beverley Billiris, 66, quickly earned Wikle’s endorsement. Billiris spent 12 years as mayor and city commissioner for Tarpon Springs, where Wikle grew up and is an active member of the community. She also worked as a corporate accountant, owns Sponge Merchant International with her husband, and has retired after about 14 years of teaching at Tarpon Springs Elementary School.

But that hasn’t deterred Ken Peluso, 57, from trying again for the school board. Peluso lost to Wikle in the 2008 school board election by half a percentage point. The retired chiropractor and former chairman of the Early Learning Coalition has served as a Palm Harbor Fire District commissioner and as Palm Harbor’s honorary mayor. Peluso has endorsements from the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association and the Pinellas Education Support Professionals Association, as well as the Pinellas Realtor Organization.

John Nygren, 70, retired as a math teacher at Dunedin High in 2011 but has been a consultant for the school district, creating math curricula for the Summer Bridge programs and other teacher training workshops. Nygren served on the school committee in Lynn, Massachusetts, from 1980 to 1984.

Peluso never spent time teaching in a classroom but said his experience with the Early Learning Coalition and Florida’s Early Learning Advisory Council, as well as years on the board for Calvary Christian High School in Clearwater, have provided insight into education models.

Peluso said there needs to be more collaboration between district personnel and teachers, and more career options for children. And he said officials should look at methods that work in high-performing private and charter schools and try to replicate them.

“I’ve always been passionate about education and have found ways to get involved with community organizations,” Peluso said. “We need to be preparing our students for the future.”

Peluso took heat at recent forums for saying he would support teaching creationism alongside evolution in science classes. No other candidates supported teaching creationism. Peluso said he misspoke, and while he supports creationism being taught in religion courses, he understands it’s unconstitutional to teach the theory in a science class.

Nygren has taught math for about 10 years in Florida, at three schools in Pinellas, and for 25 years in Massachusetts, while working part-time at convenience stores and UPS to support his family of five children and 15 grandchildren. Nygren advocates a back-to-basics approach that emphasizes discipline in schools, efforts to boost teacher morale and to optimize their planning time, and vocational-technical alternative high schools instead of only operating programs at existing high schools.

“I just don’t think our students are getting a fair shake and I don’t think the school board is heading in the right direction,” Nygren said. “Our 71 percent graduation rate is nothing to be proud of. To me, personally, that’s absolutely pathetic and we should feel a sense of urgency to address that instead of saying it’s better than we were. It’s incredibly frustrating to see year after year from a classroom.”

Billiris says she is the only candidate who has taught the new Florida Standards, education benchmarks that stress more reading, writing and critical thinking in all grade levels. Billiris left teaching in June in disgust over the “cookie cutter standards” being taught in classrooms. Teachers need more freedom with their lesson plans, and students need clear expectations and information presented in the classroom, she said. Every year the standards have changed, Billiris said, and that was a huge impetus behind why she decided to run for office.

“Of course we need standards, but we need more local autonomy of how that’s being implemented,” Billiris said. “Yes, it’s a mandate, but I’ve faced many a mandate in political office. You gather and join with other counties that have the same mindset and you go to Tallahassee, you go to Washington and to the people that make those decisions and you let them know it’s not working.”

Teachers need more training on the new standards, and the school board can make smaller changes, from giving teachers more time to prepare to selecting curricula that allows more creativity, she said.

Peluso has raised more than $37,000 for his campaign, while Billiris has raised about $10,000, and Nygren has raised $2,000. If one of the candidates does not receive more than 50 percent of the vote during the Aug. 26 primary, the two with the most votes will go to a run-off election Nov. 4. The election is only open to voters living within District 4.

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