BRADENTON -- After emerging from a four-way contest in August, the top two candidates Julie Aranibar and Mary Cantrell are still vying for the favor of Manatee County voters for the District 5 school board seat.
The race is drawing sharp interest and criticism from both camps, from claims of Cantrell being a "carpetbagger" -- Cantrell and her husband own a home in St. Petersburg, but Cantrell is renting in Manatee County to satisfy election rules -- to assertions that Aranibar has only made matters worse in her time on the board.
Aranibar, the current board chair, is seeking re-election. She was first elected to the board in 2010. Cantrell, the former head of MTI, is a first-time candidate. Cantrell was head of MTI for almost two decades.
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. Most notably was the issue of private security officers in the district's elementary schools. The contract, which was originally awarded to Sarasota Security Patrol, then revoked in early October, caused divisions on the board and in the community, and even caused a nonprofit group to file suit against the board.
Aranibar was a strong supporter of the district's plan from the start and was one of three "yes" votes on the board to put the plan into place. Cantrell said she would have voted no on the contract, because there are other ways to better provide security and that she prefers to work with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office to provide officers in the schools.
The candidates also differed on measuring the district's academic achievements. Aranibar championed the improvements the district has made and said the district is on the right track to keep improving. Cantrell
said it is not nearly enough and that local control in individual schools and classrooms would actually make a change.
Early voting for the seat begins Oct. 25 and the general election is Nov. 4.
Aranibar earned about 35 percent of the primary vote and Cantrell earned 33 percent, according to the Manatee County Supervisor of Elections website. District 5 candidates come from the eastern part of the county, but once elected, board members represent the entire school district. The race is nonpartisan and registered voters throughout the county can vote in the race.
In August, voters re-elected Karen Carpenter to the District 4 seat over challenger Frank Brunner and chose Charlie Kennedy, a teacher at Manatee High School, over Rodney Jones in the District 2 race after Barbara Harvey decided not to seek re-election.
In the upcoming term, education is the priority, said Aranibar.
"We're going to step it up and do more," she said.
Aranibar says she wants to bring 21st-century technology to district schools, implement a high school to serve the Parrish-Ellenton-Palmetto area and have a career/technical school to improve students' job-readiness.
Aranibar, a mother of twins who graduated from the district, was first elected to the board in 2010. This year, she is serving as the board chair and said she wants to be on the board as the district improves.
In her campaign material, Aranibar said that since she has joined the board, the district now makes staffing decisions based on need, and taxpayer dollars are spent with greater transparency and accountability. Aranibar said she was impressed with this year's budget cycle, which was aligned to the strategic plan.
"This year is really the first year of the new administration's budget," she said. "For me, a personal goal is to follow through on the alignment of this budget."
Aranibar served on the board when Tim McGonegal was superintendent of schools. She gave him largely positive performance evaluations before he informed the board the district was in a deficit and immediately resigned just weeks after he had announced his plans to retire. "I saw first hand what happened when you lost the accounting focus and we jeopardize our district," she said.
She has also been a staunch supporter of Rick Mills, brought in as superintendent after McGonegal left the district.
"You cannot turn around a district in two years' time," she said. "We've just begun."
Aranibar has raised $41,855.27 for the election and has spent $30,892.36, according to the Manatee County Elections Supervisor of Elections website, with campaign contributions from county commissioner and candidate for re-election Carol Whitmore, county commissioner Robin DiSabatino, fellow board member Karen Carpenter and each of her children.
Carpenter said she gave $50 to Aranibar's campaign because of their history of working together. Carpenter said that before they were both elected to the board they knew each other from volunteering at similar organizations.
"It's because of our history of working together," she said. "We have an effective working relationship."
Carpenter said she respects the work Cantrell has done at MTI, but supporting Aranibar is a "personal preference."
After the school district non-renewed Cantrell as the director of MTI last spring, she decided to run for the school board.
Cantrell said her experience in the classroom and as an administrator will be helpful on the school board and that seeking revenge is not her goal.
"Schools are about education, not politics," she said.
Cantrell retired in 2004, but returned to the district under the Deferred Retirement Option Program to lead MTI. Cantrell, who had been at MTI for 18 years, led the campus move from Bradenton to East Manatee off Caruso Road. In April, she learned her contract would not be renewed.
As a board member, Cantrell said her priority will be working together as a five-member board to set and accomplish "real goals that produce real results."
"I think the five of us can work together for Manatee County," she said.
Cantrell said she is a believer in school-based management and that the board must be there to facilitate success for teachers and students to be able to "hit it out of the park."
If elected, Cantrell said she will purchase a home in Manatee County, and takes offense to those who call her a "carpetbagger."
"This is my home," she said.
Cantrell's potential return to the school district as the head of MTI has also become an issue in the campaign. During a one-on-one discussion with Superintendent Rick Mills, Cantrell and Mills discussed the potential hurdles for Cantrell to return to MTI.
No official job offer was made, but Cantrell said she was under the impression Mills had offered her the job. At no time did Mills stipulate Cantrell needed to drop out of the race in order to have her job back, but Cantrell cannot serve as the head of MTI and as a board member.
Cantrell has raised $30,640 for the election and has spent $25,221.04, according to the Manatee County Elections Supervisor of Elections website, with campaign contributions from former board members Larry Simmons, Walter Miller, Jane Pfeilsticker -- who lost her school board seat in 2010 to Aranibar -- and Harry Kinnan.
Kinnan, who served on the board from 1996 to 2012, said he thinks the whole community will benefit from Cantrell's experience, her positivity and her vision for the district. Kinnan gave $100 to Cantrell's campaign in September.
"I just think it's time for a change," he said.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.