Activist launches bid to unseat Manatee County school board member

Bridget Mendel, an activist and a regular at Manatee County school board meetings, will run against incumbent Gina Messenger, the board’s vice chair and a member since 2016.

Mendel and Messenger — both former teachers and the mothers of local students — will face off in the August primary. Mendel is certified in elementary education, while Messenger is certified in elementary education and English for speakers of other languages.

In an emailed response to the Bradenton Herald, Mendel said she was inspired to run for school board on Oct. 8, when a state commission rejected the settlement agreement for Superintendent Cynthia Saunders. The district leader inflated graduation rates between 2014 and 2016, according to a report from the Office of Inspector General, within the Florida Department of Education.

Though she chose to negotiate a settlement, Saunders has publicly refuted the claim on several occasions. The matter is now ongoing.

“Having attended many board meetings over the last 10 years advocating for students’ and parents’ rights and fiscal responsibility, I want to lead the charge for systematic change,” Mendel wrote.

Mendel started attending school board meetings when she noticed that her son’s valued teachers were dealing with low pay, shrinking budgets and a fear of speaking out. Her concern grew years later, when the district revealed a budget deficit of more than $3 million, prompting the resignation of then-Superintendent Tim McGonegal.

Mendel said she grew even closer to local education when she worked as a substitute and later a full-time teacher at Bashaw Elementary between 2014 and 2016. According to her response, Mendel previously taught in New York and Chicago.

Citing a fear of retribution, Mendel said her activism was greatly diminished as a teacher.

“The lack of a teacher input demoralizes our educators and leaves them feeling helpless, unprofessional and disrespected,” she wrote. “When dictates come from high above on Manatee Avenue, there is no teacher buy-in.”

Mendel’s advocacy was reignited after her short stint with the district. She became a vocal member of the local opt-out movement, criticizing Florida’s high-stakes testing and promoting the need for an alternative measure of progress.

“I believe that children and teachers are more than a score,” she explained. “The high-stakes testing culture in Manatee County is causing our teachers to leave the profession in droves — resulting in a teacher exodus, not a teacher shortage.”

Among a host of other issues, Mendel said she was passionate about the need for improved resources and accountability in exceptional student education, a program for students with disabilities.

She was also concerned with the increase in classroom technology, especially when it comes to digital applications that may track and store sensitive information about students. Schools would benefit more, she said, from leaning on qualified educators.

Mendel holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of New Hampshire, along with a Master of Science in Education from the College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y., according to her response.

“I am willing to keep digging until I get to the truth and bring forth the transparency that our hardworking Manatee County residents deserve,” she concluded.

In her own announcement for re-election, Messenger highlighted the district’s strong finances, its improving grades and the successful opening of three new schools. The announcement said she was interested in bolstering all students, especially those from low-income families, through education.

Messenger holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Central Florida, and she was previously a teacher in Marion and Orange counties.

Speaking on Monday afternoon, Messenger said she spent most of her life in Manatee County.

She was born in District 4 and raised in District 3 before she settled down in District 1, the area she now represents. Messenger said her local connection and her professional travels make her an asset to the board.

“I’m a young millennial parent and I’ve taught in several different counties within the state of Florida,” she said. “With that knowledge, I’m able to compare and critique the school district when necessary.”

Gina Messenger mug.jpg
Gina Messenger, vice chair for the School Board of Manatee County. Provided photo
Giuseppe Sabella, education reporter for the Bradenton Herald, holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida. He spent time at the Independent Florida Alligator, the Gainesville Sun and the Florida Times-Union. His coverage of education in Manatee County earned him a first place prize in the Florida Society of News Editors’ 2019 Journalism Contest. Giuseppe also spent one year in Charleston, W.Va., earning a first-place award for investigative reporting.