Group forms PAC to focus on upcoming school board elections in Manatee County

chawes@bradenton.comJanuary 28, 2012 

MANATEE -- Inspired by some activists’ yearlong criticisms of the school board’s fiscal management, and the fact that Manatee County recently ranked 47th out of 67 Florida school districts in FCAT scores, seven residents have formed a political action committee called Neighbors United for a Better Education.

“What we’re trying to do is get the best possible value we can for the $600 million that’s spent on education each year in this county,” said Richard Jackson, the group’s spokesman. “We want to be known as a group that asks good questions so that we can pick the candidates most likely to propel the school district forward.”

Other founding members of the group include local businessman Byron Shinn; attorney David Jackson; and Richard Conard, who has been deeply involved in design work at the Manatee Technical Institute and has a building on campus named after him. Richard Jackson also comes with a history of involvement with the school district, serving as its legislative lobbyist from 2000 to 2004. Insurance executive Mike Becks, educator Ruby Byrd and citizen Wylene Graham are also part of the PAC’s founding group.

The group is focused on November’s election, during which the District 2 seat of current chair Harry Kinnan and the District 4 seat of immediate past chair Bob Gause will be up for grabs.

Gause already has filed for re-election and has no opponents as of yet. Kinnan has repeatedly said he is too focused on “tasks at hand” to determine yet whether he will run for re-election. Local businessman Robert Moates has filed for Kinnan’s seat and already has raised more than $11,000.

Richard Jackson said the PAC hasn’t yet determined which candidates it will support. The group’s members already have submitted 45 to 50 possible questions that candidates will be asked. That list will be winnowed down to eight or 10 key questions, and the PAC’s support will be based on the candidates’ answers to the questions.

Jackson said the PAC has been strongly influenced by the budget questions raised by activists Linda Schaich and Peggy Martin, who have repeatedly questioned district administrators about what they call errors and inconsistencies in budget material.

“They have come up with several questions and have not been given good answers or complete answers,” Jackson said.

Kinnan said he knew little about the new PAC but said overall, he felt that school board elections should remain “nonpartisan” and “should not be politicized.”

Gause said he is philosophically opposed to PACs because they allow anonymous contributions.

“At the local level, I’ve never supported the concept of PACs,” he said. “I believe people should openly identify their support through contributions directly to candidates.”

Gause also noted that a PAC formed during last year’s school board elections, called To Tell the Truth, had launched a negative campaign against fellow school board member Julie Aranibar.

But Jackson said his group has vowed to maintain “a civil tone.”

“This is a small community,” he said, “and we all have to live together here.”

Follow Christine Hawes, Herald education reporter, on Twitter @chawesreports, see her blog at www.bradenton.com, or contact her at 941-745-7081.

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