Two candidates, each different in their backgrounds and leadership styles, are competing for the only contested spot on Manatee County’s school board.
District 4 incumbent Scott Hopes feels his background in business and politics is a crucial asset to the board. With the upcoming departure of John Colon, a Wells Fargo executive who previously worked on Wall Street, the board will include two attorneys (James Golden and Dave Miner), along with two educators (Charlie Kennedy and Gina Messenger).
“I was an educator, a researcher, but I’ve been in business for probably 35 years,” Hopes said. “When I make decisions on the board, I’m able to draw on that experience.”
His competitor, Joe Stokes, is a lifelong educator and school administrator who emphasizes skill sets — primarily teamwork and communication — rather than individual backgrounds.
“I don’t discredit having business people at the school board, but sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t,” Stokes said. “The voters get to decide, and I trust that more than anything else.”
Early voting runs through Nov. 3, and the general election takes place on Nov. 6. Stokes defeated Hopes by approximately 8 percentage points (5,565 votes) in the primary election, but neither received more than 50 percent of the vote, leading to the current runoff.
Who is Scott Hopes?
According to Hopes, the school board doesn’t need a third educator.
Hopes co-founded Healthcare Management Decisions, a consulting group, in the late 1980s. He said the organization’s second client was Rick Scott, Florida’s current governor and its Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate.
In 2013, Gov. Scott appointed Hopes to the University of South Florida Board of Trustees, which allowed him to serve on the board’s Finance Committee and its Strategic Initiatives Committee.
“You’re talking about an organization that has a $2.1 billion a year budget in education and research, thousands of employees and educators, much like the school district, and has the same number of students,” Hopes said.
Scott then appointed Hopes to the School Board of Manatee County in July 2017, filling a seat left vacant by Karen Carpenter’s resignation. The board elected Hopes as chairman about four months later.
He also serves as the chairman and chief executive officer of CliniLinc, a health and medical technology company he co-founded.
Hopes, a registered lobbyist for more than two decades, said he knows how to spot bad contracts, manage large budgets and forge new relationships.
“I’ve learned those hard lessons, and that’s why I knew what questions to ask and what to look for,” he said.
Hopes also underscored his teaching experience. He taught science in Hillsborough County during 1984, and he oversaw four departments at McLane Junior High School, in Brandon, about one year later.
“And I even taught a graduate course at USF a couple weeks ago,” he said.
Attempting to highlight his abilities, Hopes pointed to revelations about the district’s troubled software project, which jumped from a cost of less than $10 million to well over $20 million.
Hopes has worked with Superintendent Cynthia Saunders to address possible wrongdoings and to negotiate with the software vendor.
In August, the district released a vague statement after placing a deputy superintendent on administrative leave. Hopes soon released his own statement, expanding on the district’s action against Ron Ciranna, who has since filed for retirement.
“Educational institutions, while they may teach communications, they’re often times poor at communicating,” he said.
Who is Joe Stokes?
Stokes, an educator for 45 years, is equipped with knowledge from both the school and district level.
His career started in Muncie, Ind., and the majority of his first 17 years was spent teaching in Title I schools. Stokes, who received an educator of the year award, went on to become a principal in three elementary schools before he moved to Florida.
Stokes was well received in Manatee County. He joined Martha B. King Middle School in 2004, and a parent expressed her gratitude in a letter dated Oct. 26, 2005.
The mother felt her daughter was unfairly disciplined, and Stokes soon canceled the girl’s detention. The mother commended Stokes and his assistant principal for their quick action.
“The thoughtfulness and the wisdom that was shown in rectifying quandary will not be forgotten,” she wrote. “By being fair and understanding they taught more than they will ever know.”
Stokes was no stranger to praise, according to his personnel file. His supervisor, Angela Essig, highlighted the principal’s work in a 2008 evaluation.
“Joe Stokes is one of our district’s most outstanding principals,” she wrote. “He relates exceptionally well to parents and the community, and is a man of vision and purpose.”
Stokes’ campaign statements are nearly identical to the self evaluations in his district file. In October 2007, he said data was important to understanding progress and student diversity, a common talking point in recent interviews.
He urged employees to be more empathetic and creative in 2008. A year later, Stokes emphasized the value of communication and transparency.
“I was used to 24/7 communication with people that wanted me to clarify something, solve something, articulate what I would do,” he said on Thursday.
In 2009, he moved up to director of elementary education for the district, a job he would hold until 2013. A new superintendent arrived and Stokes learned he would be replaced, so he asked to be the assistant principal of Samoset Elementary School.
He worked at the school until his retirement in 2016. In a recent interview, Stokes said his background in education is no less valuable than Hopes’ background in business.
While both are important, he said, the district has a superintendent, a chief financial officer and two oversight groups that focus on operations.
“I’m not going to be involved in the operations of the district as a board member, like I was when I was a principal, a teacher or the director of elementary schools,” he said.
How are they funded?
The candidates’ backgrounds are clearly reflected in their campaign contributions.
As of Oct. 12, Hopes had nearly as many donations from addresses in Tallahassee (13) as he did from people and organizations in Bradenton (18). Twenty percent of his overall donations came from the state’s capital, with the majority coming from a single office.
The following contributors are registered to Hopes’ business partner and campaign treasurer, David Ramba:
- Ramba Law Group ($1,000)
- Ramba Consulting Group ($256.42)
- Floridians United for a Sustainable Economy ($500)
- Focused on Florida’s Future ($1,000)
- Floridians for Fair Insurance Regulation ($1,000)
- The Committee for Justice, Transportation and Business ($1,000)
- Strong Communities of Southwest Florida ($1,000)
“If anybody can get something done in Tallahassee and the legislator, on this board, it would be me,” Hopes said.
Florida’s chief financial officer, Jimmy Patronis Jr., donated $250 to the campaign. Hopes received $150 from Adam Hasner, the vice president of public policy for GEO Group, a private prison company. He was also the former majority leader in the Florida House of Representatives.
The incumbent received another $250 from Armor Correctional Health Services. Hopes said he co-founded the company, and that Armor Correctional provided services to the Manatee County Jail for several years.
He earned support from Alice Kaddatz, a regular at school board meetings. And the board chair received donations from Charles Tokarz, a volunteer on the Citizens Financial Advisory Committee, and from the committee’s chairman, Robert Christopher.
“It’s great that he has influence with some people, but it’s not local influence,” Stokes said. “Again, let the voters decide.”
As of mid-October, Stokes received more than 80 contributions from current and former teachers, principals, paraprofessionals, guidance counselors and district administrators.
He received $500 from the Manatee Education Association, along with multiple donations from his past supervisors and colleagues.
Former Superintendent Roger Dearing donated $250 to the campaign. Walter MIller, a previous chairman on the school board, donated several times, as did Gary Holbrook, the former principal at Freedom Elementary School.
Both candidates received donations from local developers and construction companies.
Stokes received a total of $550 from Miller Recreation, a company that designs and builds playgrounds. He also collected $1,000 from Jason Bartz, the vice president of development for NDC Construction, which has a longstanding relationship with the school district.
NDC’s president, Ronald Allen, and its executive vice president, Gary Huggins, donated a total of $4,000 to Hopes between the primary and general election. Hopes also received $1,000 from local developer Pat Neal, and the same amount from Harvard Jolly Architecture.
Stokes averaged $142 per monetary donation, while Hopes averaged $520 per contribution. As of Oct. 12, Stokes’ and Hopes’ spending was nearly identical at $33,121 and $31,322 respectively.
What are their possible weaknesses?
Hopes’ first year was nothing short of turbulent.
He and board member Dave Miner argued outside the School Support Center on Feb. 27, directly after a board meeting. Hopes still believes Miner tried to run him over, but Bradenton police determined there was no probable cause to file an aggravated assault charge.
Board member Charlie Kennedy later tried to remove Hopes from the chair position. Kennedy initially said he was disturbed by an alleged comment from the chairman.
Hopes, speaking to a police office about Miner, reportedly said, “He’s lucky my gun was in my car.”
“What came out of that was a understanding of what triggers Mr. Miner, and the board — collectively — came up with guidelines for conducting the board meetings and limiting discussion to five minutes per board member,” Hopes said.
Hopes feels board meetings are shorter and more efficient since his arrival. The board, he said, has since completed the Master Board Program. The program teaches members to “work effectively, efficiently and collectively,” according to the Florida School Boards Association.
And though Stokes led a successful career in Manatee schools, his performance was arguably less impressive on the district level.
In 2012-2013, his last year as the director of elementary schools, there were more D’s and F’s among the district’s elementary schools than at any point in more than a decade. There were also less A-rated schools, according to records from the Florida Department of Education.
And it was rare to see an F-rated school in the past — in Stokes’ last year as director, there were five.
On Thursday, Stokes said grades were generally down across the state in 2013. He cited new rubrics and harder tests, along with a rigorous schedule in his position.
“You want to talk about a bargain, you’re looking at him,” Stokes said. “There’s two directors of elementary schools now, and they have people who report to them that do curriculum. I didn’t have that.”