Candidates for the School Board of Manatee County seem to align, for the most part, in their beliefs about security and the search for a new superintendent.
A total of eight candidates are vying for three open seats, and seven appeared at a forum hosted by the Bradenton Kiwanis Club on Tuesday afternoon. Board member Charlie Kennedy, who currently represents District 2, never received an invitation.
Brett Pollock, president-elect for the club, said he accidentally sent the invitation to an incorrect email address.
"The mistake is my fault and has no reflection on the candidate," Pollock said in an email.
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School board elections are nonpartisan. Regardless of their political affiliations or districts, all candidates will appear on ballots during the primary election on Aug. 28. The races for District 2 and District 5 will likely be decided in August, but four people are competing for the District 4 seat, a race that could carry into the general election on Nov. 6 if no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary.
Each candidate agreed that school security goes far beyond school resource officers or "guardians."
Soon after the Parkland shooting on Feb. 14, Florida passed a law that requires all district schools to be protected in the future, but the state's allocation of security money fell short in districts around the state.
Manatee's school board made it clear that certified law enforcement officers should be the only ones to guard Manatee's more than 60 schools. But much like other communities, the district relinquished and will now use "guardians" — armed security officers with no law enforcement authority — in dozens of schools.
Each candidate agreed on Tuesday that sheriff's deputies and police officers are the preferred security option. However, they also underscored the importance of fences, high-tech surveillance cameras and adequate locks.
Scott Hopes is the board's current chair and the incumbent for District 4. He joined board member Dave Miner in touring district schools after the Parkland shooting.
"We found that, if that had happened in Manatee County, there would have been far more children killed and teachers killed," he said. "At more than half the schools that I visited you could not lock the front office door from inside the building. "
Board member John Colon, the incumbent for District 5, said he feels strongly about the need for fences at every district school. He also wants to install metal detectors at high schools, and to implement a single entrance and exit at each campus.
Colon went on to say that violence is among many threats to area children. He suggested the use of berms or ridges to deter camera-wielding pedophiles.
"You cannot keep people off the campus if you don't put up a fence," he said. "There's just too many ways to walk on the campus. And teachers are there to teach — they aren't there to be security guards."
Joseph Stokes, one of Hopes' challengers, was among several candidates to highlight mental health as another area of concern. Effective counselors are just as important as fences and guards, Stokes said, adding that counselors are currently overburdened.
"They're involved in testing, they're involved in scheduling and, often times, you'd be surprised how little they talk to our students," he said.
Candidates also spoke on the task of finding a replacement for former-superintendent Diana Greene. Each seemed to agree that a nationwide search would lead to the best applicants.
Kennedy is competing against Alice Kaddatz for the District 2 seat. Citing the need for a strong leader, she pointed to the large number of third graders who fail to meet expectations during annual assessments.
A superintendent should be savvy in business, finance, education and leadership, the candidates said. James Daniel, a District 4 candidate, said Manatee should utilize a consultant to identify the community's needs, along with the qualities needed to meet those needs.
District 4 candidate Richard Murphy backed the idea of a nationwide search, but he also urged to district to consider local options as well.
And District 5 candidate James Golden suggested utilizing the expertise of Cynthia Saunders, Manatee's interim superintendent, to aid in the search process. Appointing a new superintendent is no small matter, he added.
"The school system is the foundation of every other avenue of progress in this community," he said.