During one of their last chances to influence voters before the Aug. 28 primary election, school board candidates from Manatee county participated in a forum the afternoon of Aug. 18.
The forum was hosted by University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee’s Institute for Public Policy and Leadership, in partnership with the Observer Media Group and Manatee Educational Television.
Seven of the eight candidates running in the three elections participated in the forum, which followed a question-and-answer format, moderated by Observer Publisher Emily Walsh. District 4 candidate Richard Murphy did not attend.
There were a few tense exchanges during the forum, but common themes emerged from the candidates’ answers to questions on how to make schools safer, conduct the search for a new superintendent and create less discord on the school board.
Although all candidates agreed on the importance of school security for the Manatee County School District, they differed in their opinions of how best to create a safe environment.
Earlier this year, the school board voted to implement a guardian program, which installs trained armed guardians on campuses. Although many of the guardians who have graduated from the program so far have law enforcement or military experience, they do not have law enforcement authority or arrest powers.
During the forum, District 4 candidate Jim Daniel said he has heard that constituents are concerned with the guardian program, and they want certified law enforcement officers in schools instead. Daniel said replacing these with guardians loses the relationships school resource officers have formed in the past. “We’ve got 40 people coming into our schools, and no continuity with the past,” Daniel said.
Fellow District 4 candidate Joe Stokes agreed, stating guardians have one huge shortcoming: “They do not have arrest powers,” he said. He added that he was dissatisfied with the school board’s level of discussion with the Bradenton City Council on continuing its school resource officer program.
Current board Chairman Scott Hopes defended the board’s choice to use guardians, stating the Sheriff’s Office simply didn’t have the manpower to meet the new state requirement that there be an officer in every school by the beginning of this school year. Hopes said the plan is to install deputies by August 2019, but many of the guardians are retired law enforcement and military officers, and they can act as a complement to school resource officers in the future. “Even if we have school resource officers, we still need more people with guns,” Hopes said.
In the District 5 race between incumbent school board member John Colon and James Golden, Golden said he didn’t believe in making schools look like prisons, or in having “people with guns but no arrest powers.”
“We have all kinds of willy-nilly answers and a very serious predilection toward violence,” Golden said, adding that he would be in favor of having more surveillance to increase security on campuses.
Conversely, Colon believed the proposed the security measures didn’t go far enough. He said he advocates for not just fences around schools, but berms around elementary schools so people couldn’t photograph children outside or on the playground.
"No one wants their child's photo on the internet without them knowing about it," Colon said.
On the topic of finding a new superintendent to replace Diana Greene, who left to become superintendent of the Duval County School District in June, candidates varied in whether Interim Superintendent Cynthia Saunders should be allowed to apply for the job, or if the district should accept internal applicants at all.
"If all you're worried about is not creating waves, this is not the place for you. This is tsunami central." — James Golden, District 5 school board candidate
In the District 2 race, candidate Alice Kaddatz and incumbent school board member Charlie Kennedy agreed that external candidates would eliminate bias to pick an internal candidate, and would also not deter the best candidates from applying for the job.
During the District 4 forum, Hopes said he thought the district needed someone with superintendent experience. “The previous people who have been in these positions had never been a superintendent,” Hopes said. “This community has paid a lot to train superintendents.”
His opponents, Stokes and Daniel, argued the search should be open to everyone because the board said it is running a nationwide search. “I don’t want to close the door to anyone,” Daniel said.
In the District 5 race, Golden said he has a clear vision for the next superintendent. His preference is to bring in someone fearless, who’s not afraid of the school board, the teachers or the union. “If all you’re worried about is not creating waves, this is not the place for you,” he said. “This is tsunami central.”
Colon said he wants a leader who can provide guidance and wants someone who wants to be part of the community. “I want someone who loves the Friday night lights, who’s going to go to football games and basketball games and wants to be forward for us,” he said.
School board relations
Answering a question regarding how to make the school board more efficient and have less discord, District 2 candidate Kaddatz said: “Change a few board members … I can think of two.”
Her opponent Kennedy said he has been part of a team that has been working on improving the district and has seen results since the district was almost taken over by the state in 2013. “If you don’t like the way things are going, then please vote me out,” he said, adding that he’s proud of the improvements the board has made to the district’s finances and school grades. “We went through some strife in the spring, but we’ve been working together since.”
In the District 4 race, Daniel had a simple response to how he would reduce discord on the board: “I’d start with a barbecue,” he said. “The problem we have is one of relationshps between the five people on that board.”
Hopes said one board member is primarily responsible for the strife of the board. “It’s on video and audio. You can identify the individual that is a challenge for all of us,” Hopes said. “It’s unfortunate for those of us that are working in these very difficult conditions, and I ask voters to remember that in two years.”
Stokes said: “I ask the voters to remember that now.” He added that the board is sovereign, but an individual has no authority without the board’s power, and voters should elect someone who can work with others. “I choose my pronouns very carefully,” Stokes said. “I try to use ‘we,’ and ‘us’; I try not to use ‘I,’ and ‘me.’ Five heads are better than one.”