Orlando Sentinel | By Leslie Postal | August 2, 2022
In a year of contentious political issues, the eight members of the Orange County School Board often reached consensus — agreeing on face mask rules during COVID-19 surges, a teacher pay plan during a battle with its teachers union and who should be the next superintendent of Central Florida’s largest school district.
Now, the school board faces significant turnover, as 15 candidates vie for four seats in the Aug. 23 election.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education agenda, including hot-button issues such as critical race theory and the appropriateness of certain library books, serve as a backdrop for the election.
Five candidates share views that mirror the governor’s, though none are among the 29 school board candidates statewide DeSantis has endorsed this summer as he inserted himself into local campaigns in an unprecedented way.
Orange school board members serve four-year terms and set policy for the district, which enrolls more than 200,000 students and has more than 24,000 employees. They earn $47,189 a year.
The Orange school board includes a chair who is elected districtwide. The chair has the same duties as other school board members but in a tie vote, serves as the tiebreaker.
All Orange voters can vote for the chair. Other board races are decided by district. Candidates must get 50% plus one vote to win. If no one does, the top two finishers face off in November.
In questionnaires, interviews with the Orlando Sentinel’s editorial board and their campaign websites and Facebook pages, candidates shared their views and priorities.
Teresa Jacobs, a former Orange County mayor, was elected chair in 2018 and is seeking re-election. She faces challengers Demensio Barton and Carl Brewer.
Barton, according to his campaign page, is a pastor and businessman, running an Orlando ministry with his wife. Brewer’s website says he is a financial educator.
Brewer urged supporters on Facebook to donate to his campaign saying “your direct action will help put a Conservative in charge of the Orange County School Board.”
On his campaign website, he calls himself a “bureaucracy-busting man of the people” and said he wanted to get more parents involved in setting school policies, make sure there is “transparency of educational material” and “empower our teachers.”
On his Facebook page, he said he wants to eliminate CRT from public schools and improve teacher pay.
He also touted his appearance with the Florida Freedom Keepers, which lobbied against mask and vaccine mandates during the pandemic.
Barton’s campaign website includes a copy of DeSantis “pledge to Florida families” and notes he would back the governor’s education priorities. Those include committing to keep CRT out of schools, “ensure parental rights in education and keep Woke gender ideology out of schools” and “guarantee the right of parents to curriculum transparency.”
Critical race theory says racism is embedded in U.S. institutions. Historically, it has been a law school or graduate school subject, but critics say its tenets have seeped into K-12 classrooms with the aim to make white children feel guilty and all children to hate the United States. They also consider social emotional learning an offshoot of CRT.
Barton said those topics are “undermining the belief systems of families.”
The state’s school guardian program, which allows some teachers to carry guns on campus, should be considered, Barton said, adding that school safety must be a priority.
Jacobs, 65, disagreed with Barton.
OCPS decided that police officers were the best way to enhance security on campuses, a decision most parents support, Jacobs said.
“I am not aware of any instances of critical race theory being taught in the schools,” Jacobs said. “I think it’s extremely unfortunate that so much energy and anger has been spent on a non-issue.”
She supports teaching children social emotional learning skills — or how to manage emotions and get along with others — and so does the state, but it just doesn’t use that term.
A new Florida law signed by DeSantis requires public school students to learn “life skills that build confidence, support mental and emotional health, and enable students to overcome challenges.”
Unfortunately, Jacobs said, several of Florida’s new education laws have created uncertainty and worry for many educators and students, among them the law critics deride as the “don’t say gay” measure.
In her first term, Jacobs said she aimed to make sure all students and staff felt welcome on campuses, pushing for an LGBTQ awareness proclamation and for gay-straight alliances in all secondary schools.
State funding remains a key concern, Jacobs said. Though state leaders provided more money this year, their efforts remain focused mostly on boosting pay for starting teachers, leaving many veterans feeling shortchanged.
Better pay for other employees, such as bus drivers, is critical, she added, as is student mental health. Jacobs convened a mental health commission in her first term.
The past few years have been difficult, but Jacobs said she thinks the school board what most residents wanted during the pandemic.
With a new superintendent just hired, and at least two new board members filling vacant seats, Jacobs thinks she will represent continuity for OCPS.
District 1, east Orange
Angie Gallo won the seat in 2018 and is seeking re-election. Rachel Kirby is challenging her. The district includes a large swath of east Orange.
Kirby, 45, works for Ericsson, a telecommunications company, according to her LinkedIn profile. She decided to run because she found the district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic “appalling,” most notably its student mask mandate that prompted her to pull her two elementary school children out of OCPS.
She wants to increase teacher pay, give parents more say in school decisions, remove sexually explicit materials from campuses and prohibit critical race theory.
“The radical federal agenda that’s now embedded in our curriculum or pushed by activist teachers needs to be stopped,” she wrote.
Parents want school board members who will “hold people accountable to our new laws that DeSantis has signed in,” she added.
Gallo, a longtime PTA volunteer who had positions on local boards as well as the Florida PTA, said she is running again because the pandemic disrupted some of her goals and created new issues that must be addressed.
She defended how the board navigated through the pandemic, saying it made the best decisions it could relying on the advice of medical experts. “We did everything we could to keep our schools open, our buses running, and our cafeterias serving hot food to our students, and we were successful,” she said.
Still, students lost academic ground and some achievement gaps likely widened. Many youngsters face mental health and social challenges that must be addressed and teacher pay and morale remain ongoing issues, Gallo said.
The district must find “creative ways to pay educators what they deserve, reduce the workload, and provide more autonomy so that we can recruit and retain high-quality teachers,” she wrote.
Gallo, whose grown daughters are OCPS graduates, would like to increase career and technical programs and increase access to dual enrollment at Valencia College, which often hinges on students having their own transportation.
District 2, east Orange
Johanna Lopez won the seat in 2018 but is stepping down midterm to run for the Florida House. Five candidates are trying to replace her. The district includes east Orlando and runs south to Lake Nona.
Heather Ashby, 47, is a school counselor for OCPS whose twin daughters graduated from county schools. She said she decided to run because “the profession I love, the people I work with, and the students and families I work for, are under attack.”
Ashby said she wants to improve teacher retention, provide more support for other school employees, enhance school safety and student mental health support and make sure school technology is reliable.
The school board faced tough decisions during the pandemic, and Ashby thinks “the right decisions were made with the limited information available.”
Laws aimed at removing critical race theory or scrutinizing library books worry the former social studies teacher, who fears they could lead to rewritten history lessons and small groups of parents limiting what books other people’s children can check out.
The goal seems to be the “dismantling public education,” she said. “I want to keep Orange County Public Schools the safe haven it should be for all of our children.”
George Collins, 74, is an adjunct instructor in communications at Valencia and the University of Central Florida, according to his campaign website. He previously ran unsuccessfully for the Florida House.
Collins, a longtime community volunteer, said he would focus on improving communication between parents and schools and the school board and the local teachers union.
He wants to improve teacher pay, expand technical, financial and nutrition classes and work with the Legislature and local business groups to address teacher and other staff shortages.
Maria Salamanca, 29, is a partner in a venture capital firm “dedicated to investing in immigrant entrepreneurs.”
Salamanca, a graduate of Timber Creek High School, decided to run “because the network of teachers and school administrators who I credit for my success have been drowning in impossibly heavy workloads and dealing with culture war distractions because of our state legislature.”
She would be a “student rights advocate,” she wrote, helping to “effectively represent a district with a large bilingual, Hispanic population.”
Salamanca wants to improve teacher recruitment and retention and “change the culture around how we treat our teachers.”
New state education laws pushed by DeSantis worry her, and she wishes OCPS took a stronger stance against HB 1557, derided by critics as the “don’t say gay” bill.
“I would unapologetically stand with LGBTQ teachers, students, and parents of all backgrounds against censorship and erasure in the classroom,” she wrote.
Chad Aaron Spence, 51, is a high school science teacher at a private Christian school in east Orange and a “product support physicist” at a Melbourne company, according to his LinkedIn profile.
His campaign Facebook page says he will “oppose tyrannical lockdowns, the masking of our precious children and vaccine mandates.” He notes he is among a slate of conservative candidates hoping to lead an ideological shift on the Orange school board.
He would push for “world class education, without indoctrination,” his website says. “I will work to keep gender ideology and other sensitive issues out of the schools. Teachers’ and students’ focus should be on the course content and subject areas.”
A father of six, Spence touts parental rights and curriculum transparency.
Jose Vicente, 55, is a retired Orlando police officer. He said his experience in law enforcement, including work as a trainer and recruiter and serving on labor and pension boards, gives him “insight to a variety of concerns plaguing the district.”
He is a graduate of Colonial High School and his four grown children also graduated from an OCPS high school.
He views recruiting and retaining teachers and staff as a key issue facing the school board and views higher salaries as important to that goal.
Vicente is also focused on school safety. “With all of the events happening in the nation, I would partner with our law enforcement agencies and work towards improving the areas where the schools can be safer,” he said.
District 3, central Orange
Linda Kobert has held the seat since 2014 but is not seeking re-election. Five candidates want to take her place, representing a district that runs from just south of downtown Orlando to the south county line.
Michael Daniels, 49, is an administrator at Eastern Florida State College and a longtime OCPS volunteer.
With 20 years of work in higher education, Daniels wants to put his expertise to use for Orange schools, making sure “all children get the very best that OCPS has to offer,” he wrote.
“I see the progress and potential we have as a district. I am concerned, however, that individuals at the state and local levels will attempt to marginalize diverse student groups more than they already have. “
Daniels, whose two children are OCPS graduates, said he would push for higher teachers’ salaries and better efforts to explain to parents the educational options their children have in OCPS schools.Sometimes, he said, schools push students to take Advanced Placement classes when dual enrollment through Valencia might be a better choice to earn college credits.
Alican Farrant, 41, is a mother of five who along with her husband runs a Christian ministry that works in El Salvador and Guatemala, according to her website.
She spoke out against OCPS’ mask mandate and, as a member of the conservative Moms for Liberty group, pushed the district to remove books she viewed as “pornographic” from school libraries.
She appeared on stage with DeSantis when he signed a bill that provides for more parental scrutiny of school books.
“Students need a place where they can thrive and learn without being indoctrinated or taught our nation’s history is tainted,” her campaign website says.
She also supports higher teacher salaries and wants teachers not to be forced to “become psychologist(s) who push ‘social emotional learning,” the website adds.
Kila Murphey, 43, is a nurse practitioner who has been advocating for children with disabilities, including her two sons.
She wants to improve teacher salaries and “embrace greater teacher creativity and autonomy” to allow innovation in classrooms that can improve students’ academic skills, she said.
She also wants to make sure all students graduate with a plan for their future and improve reading instruction so more students read proficiently.
Murphey said OCPS needs to beef up support for children with disabilities and their families, making sure all children are included and offered equitable services in Orange schools.
Susanne Marie Pena, 42, is a former teacher and instructional coach who now works as an educational consultant. Her areas of expertise, she said, are helping students to learn English and helping those with disabilities.