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2014 Duval School Board Election Candidates Convene For The First Time

First Coast Tiger Bay Club

The Duval County School Board primary elections are next month and six candidates are racing to fill two district seats.

Friday afternoon, a few dozen residents got their first chance to hear from nearly all of them on where they stand on Jacksonville’s top education issues.

The First Coast Tiger Bay Club hosted a special forum during its monthly meeting featuring school board candidates Becki Couch, Sam Hall, Scott Shine, Darryl Willie and Paula Wright.

Stephen Baker,  President of the First Coast Tiger Bay Club, said the point of the discussion was to give Jacksonville citizens and candidates to interact before elections.

"The children are our future so surely what could be more important than this? These are the people who will be making the policies regarding school board," he said.

Friday's forum was the first to bring the candidates together before their constituents this school board election cycle.

Local businessman and philanthropist Sam Hall and former commissioner with the City of Jacksonville Ethics Commission Scott Shine are both running for the District 2 seat, which school board member Fred "Fel" Lee will be stepping down from this year.

Local educator Darryl Willie is running against incumbent school board Member Paula Wright for the District 4 seat. School board chairwoman Becki Couch is running unopposed.

The two other candidates on the ballot this year Theresa Graham and Shannon Russell-- both running for the District 2 seat-- did not respond to calls or emails to participate in the event, Baker said.

During the discussion, candidates covered education topics ranging from improving teacher retention to their stance on Common Core Standards. 

Willie told the crowd of about 50 attendees that he supported a "common system," citing the fact that as the child of military he traveled to different schools in different states growing up.

"If I go to school in North Carolina or Florida, if I go to school somewhere else, it's important to know that I can compete," he said. "I  think in it's form, I don't know if I agree with it in its way," Willie said. "But we have to think about how we're assessing to that and I think that's how we're assessing to that and I think that's our biggest question...because if we can do that our students are going to be able to compete not only locally but nationally."

Wright noted that school board members do not have an option on whether or not to implement the standards.    

"With not having an option, I focus on how do we prepare our students and help them understand the Florida Standards Assessment as positively as possible, and we do that by going into the community and helping them understand," she said.

At one point, candidates were also asked to discuss how they would rate the job of the district's current superintendent on a scale of 1 to 10.

Shine said he would give Superintendent Nikolai Vitti an eight, applauding his reform efforts, but adding that there have been some communication issues that need improvement

"We need to make sure that all of leadership and educators know about changes before we put them into place...but I think he's a good leader," he said. "We need to go after the top talent in this country. Dr. Vitti is among the top talent and the question is whether or not we can retain him." 

Hall said he would give Vitti "a solid B."

"He was handed various challenges and he hit the ground running," Hall said. "He has been in the community with community forums."

Hall said he sees a need for more strategic planning. 

"I think we need to have a long-term strategic plan. I think that's one area he needs to work on," he said.

Among other questions, the candidates were asked if they would support the creation of an independent ethics office. Each said they would.
Baker said he was pleased with the range of questions offered at the event.

"We're always frustrated because there are a lot more questions than there is time to field those questions," he said.

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.