Politics & Government

Manatee School Board candidates Julie Aranibar, Mary Cantrell debate in Lakewood Ranch

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Julie Aranibar and Mary Cantrell defended themselves on a number of issues and made their final cases for the Manatee County School Board District 5 seat during a Lakewood Ranch Republican Club luncheon on Friday.

At the beginning of the meeting, club president Craig Trigueiro said, "This is going to be an interesting day."

Aranibar, the current board chair, is seeking re-election. She was first elected to the board in 2010. Cantrell, the former head of Manatee Technical Institute for almost two decades, is a first-time candidate.

More than half of the attendees on Friday indicated they had already voted in the election and the rest indicated that they already knew who they were voting for.

The questioning of each candidate focused on individual issues, as opposed to the candidates answering the same questions in a back-and-forth style. The loose nature of the event included follow-up questions and rebuttals and lasted almost an hour and a half.

For Aranibar, the first question had to do with a contract to bring security officers into the district's elementary schools. The district ultimately had to cancel the contract and settle a lawsuit with a nonprofit group

because of a Sunshine Law violation. Aranibar was asked how she would vote if the issue came before her again.

"I wouldn't have to. What came out of all of that is an understanding that all of the partners need to come together," Aranibar said, saying she couldn't tell the group specifically how she would vote on the security-guard contract if the issue came up again, because it wouldn't come up in the same way. Aranibar refuted the idea that the contract process was rushed.

"What I think you're going to see come back is an agreement where we all work together, which is how we should work for our students," she said.

The first question Cantrell was asked -- and the majority of the subsequent questions -- dealt with MTI, starting with the financial situation at the school. Cantrell was asked to explain why the school's financial statements were deemed "inauditable" and was asked to provide proof that she had been cleared of culpability for the situation. After a few follow-up questions, Cantrell said if she was going to be held liable, she would know it.

"Don't you think if they could find anything to toss at me, it would have already been tossed? I can tell you with a very clean conscience that everything at MTI's record has been audited annually and annually, we've always had clear audits," Cantrell said, adding the institution has taken the best-practice suggestions into account after the audits. In the August primary, Aranibar earned about 35 percent of the primary vote and Cantrell earned 33 percent, according to the Manatee County Supervisor of Elections website.

Since the primary, the candidates have engaged in a number of events, including a Bradenton Herald/METV forum and a luncheon at the Tiger Bay Club, where they fell on opposite sides on a number of issues. Friday's luncheon was the final time the candidates will meet before early voting begins Saturday. The general election is Nov. 4.

Toward the end of the luncheon Friday, Aranibar encouraged members to stay the course.

"I think you need to consider me 'cause you already know what you got for the last four years," she said.

Cantrell pointed to the work she did at MTI, saying she wants to do the same for the entire district.

"That's what I want to do on the school board -- I want it nationally recognized," she said.

All Manatee County voters can cast a vote in the nonpartisan District 5 race. District 5 candidates come from the eastern part of the county, but once elected, board members represent the entire school district.

Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.