Education cred is deep for 6 seeking Murgio’s north-county seat

Northern Palm Beach County residents must once again choose among a packed field of candidates to fill an emptied seat on the Palm Beach County School Board. As in 2012, District 1 is the only contested board seat in the election cycle, and none of the six candidates has served in elected public office before.

This time the vacuum was created when Mike Murgio, a veteran educator closing his first term in elected office, resigned in April. He did so a day after federal authorities indicted him on charges of bribery and illegal money transfers in connection with his son’s business.

In 2012, Murgio fended off four contenders in the August primary, and one in a November runoff, to fill the seat that eye surgeon Monroe Benaim held for a decade before retiring from the board. If none of the current six wins a majority Aug. 30, this race will go to a runoff Nov. 8.

Five of the six this time around have worked in either the county’s traditional public schools or local charters, and the sixth has served as a charter board member.

That four of the candidates have some experience with charter schools reflects a presence felt districtwide: More than 20,000 students, or about 1 in 10, attend a charter in Palm Beach County.

Charter schools are managed privately but operate on public money that follows a student to his or her school of choice. Each charter must be approved by the School Board, and as more students head to those campuses every year, the board has become more focused on what their role should be.

The school board’s rejection of a charter application last year on the grounds the school wasn’t offering anything traditional schools didn’t – that it wasn’t “innovative” — has landed it both in a legal battle and uncharted territory about what the charter landscape will look like in the future.

The next board member also will be faced with questions about shrinking enrollments at various schools, concerns about testing and their fallout in the classroom, and a growing list of needed repairs and improvements that may or may not be covered by the proposed sales tax increase from 6 percent to 7 percent.

Ellen Baker is a 15-year veteran teacher and was vice president of their local union from 2011-2014. She teaches English and science to special education students at Dwyer High. She supports the school board’s right to reject a charter for not being “innovative” and favors only those charters that cater to niches not served by the district.

Baker said she was driven to run for the seat even before Murgio resigned, describing him as “invisible” and “dismissive.” When Dwyer’s air conditioning system repeatedly conked out – once leaving her students to test for two days in a baking classroom, “he didn’t feel it was important,” she said.

The failing A/C is one reason Baker supports the proposed sales tax increase. Testing is another of Baker’s concerns. Her students tested at long tables with card-boarded stations in the library because the school lacks enough computer labs, she said.

John Anthony Boggess’ teaching career was in Ohio, where he rose to become superintendent of a technical education district that served students from 27 high schools across five counties. He retired in 2012 and moved to Florida, where his children were in college.

Boggess has found himself offering advice to two local charters where his son, Jay Boggess, has worked as an administrator – first at Inlet Grove High charter in Riviera Beach and then SouthTech Academy in Boynton Beach.

He favors charters to give students more options such as technical education, but he said, “The idea of sitting a charter across the street from an A-rated elementary school just doesn’t seem right.”

Boggess sees the sales tax as a necessary means to make necessary repairs. As for operating costs, “The salary schedule is woefully low.” But he added, “If they don’t have the money, they can’t do it.”

Louise “Toi” Bohne Daniels retired in 2013 after more than 30 years in Palm Beach County classrooms. Her last assignment: teaching reading to high schoolers who failed the state’s English exam at Jupiter High.

On charters, Daniels is in sync with the current board.

But she is most passionate about issues in the classroom. “There’s too much testing being done. Two months of our schedule in high school was devoted to test taking,” Daniels said.

Daniels also said the district’s teachers lag in training to teach special needs students. She’d like more options given to students who “are not academically inclined.”

Henry “Henry D” DiGiacinto began teaching after another career in finance and investment. During what he describes as his “semi-retirement,” Di Giancino discovered Bright Futures Academy when searching for a school for his 4-year-old son. He taught middle school social studies, became school principal and then Chief Operating officer. He resigned that spot in June to run for office and now is working there as a consultant.

DiGiacinto also sits on the board of Florida Futures Academy, a year-old charter school for dropouts where student make up lost credits online.

In 2014, he berated the school board for not sharing with charters the $33 million a year raised by an art and music property tax. “I said that money should be going to all the music and art programs, not just some of them. I think the only thing I asked the county commission (in charge of ballot wording) was if they’re not going to share that should be made public and known. They agreed with me 6-1, I think,” DiGiacinto said.

DiGiacinto said the board should not simply use lack of innovation as an excuse to deny a charter. He’d like to see teachers paid more, and said some charters have managed that by being frugal in other areas.

Barbara McQuinn has been a teacher, principal and area superintendent in the county. Her only foray into charter schools came when a former star in the district, Joseph Orr, asked McQuinn to sit on the board of Montessori Academy of Northern Palm Beach, a charter that opened in 2005 and closed for lack of students and money by fall 2007.

A Palm Beach Post investigation in 2006 revealed, among other things, the school fired its only Montessori-certified teacher and it had to return nearly half of a $300,000 federal start-up grant after it failed to submit proper financial reports.

“I did this out of respect for Joe Orr. He used us as a governing board, not to get into the operation of the school,” said McQuinn, who said the school’s downfall was lack of students. “You have to have so many students per teacher to make it viable.”

She also says charters should fill niches.

McQuinn, who sits on Jupiter Middle’s school advisory council, sees the need for the one-cent-on-the-dollar tax increase for capital improvements. She likes Superintendent Robert Avossa’s strategic plan to improve learning for the district’s poorest performing students.

Tom Sutterfield is the race’s sole candidate who has never been paid to work in a school. He’s an information technology administrator at the South Florida Water Management District.

Sutterfield previously ran for and lost the school board’s District 4 seat to the south. He says he is renting in Palm Beach Gardens in District 1 while preparing to sell his Boynton Beach home. He is candid that at least part of north county’s appeal is a more Republican leaning population, even in a non-partisan race. He does have  community ties including working with the local Boy Scouts council in Palm Beach Gardens.

Sutterfield stepped into education more than a decade ago when he enrolled his son in Imagine Schools Chancellor Campus in Boynton Beach for its music and arts programs. When music was on the chopping block there, he joined the board. He’s been there ever since. “The direction I’ve taken in that board is: Find ways to save money and send that back to the students and teachers,” Sutterfield said. The A-rated school, with a waiting list 600 names long, opened a 5-acre sports complex just more than a year ago.

Sutterfield’s daughters, both dancers, attend the district’s flagship arts schools: Bak Middle and Alexander W. Dreyfoos High.

On the school board, Sutterfield said he would be an advocate of choice. He is the one candidate who does not support the sales tax increase, saying it would impede the already “fragile recovery,” but promises to be a watchdog should voters approve it.

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