After 18 years on the Palm Beach County School Board, Debra L. Robinson is facing what could be the toughest re-election campaign of her career.
A former activist, retired physician and the school board’s longest-serving member, Robinson is going head-to-head for the District 7 seat with Edwin Ferguson, a Riviera Beach attorney who grew up in the district and taught briefly in area high schools before pursuing a legal career.
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The race is being cast as a sort of generational clash, with Robinson, 61, touting her years of experience as a board member overseeing the complex world of public schools and Ferguson, 41, saying it’s time for a newcomer who can bring “a momentum shift.”
The race includes a personal element, too, with Ferguson saying that Robinson encouraged him last year to run in her place, then decided instead to seek re-election herself. Robinson says she had been preparing someone else to run in her place but denies she ever told Ferguson to run.
Individual school board members have no direct authority over the public schools, but they vote as a 7-member body on key policy and financial decisions facing the school district, and they supervise the district superintendent, who operates the schools.
Each of the candidates in this contest frames their campaign with a starkly different take on how the county’s public schools are performing today.
Robinson, a West Palm Beach resident, is optimistic, saying she has confidence in the district’s leaders and points out that the public schools are improving by several measures, including rising graduation rates and reading scores.
Ferguson, who lives in Riviera Beach, has a more pessimistic view, pointing to long-standing disparities between students in District 7 and other parts of the county, along with the fact that only 56 percent of the county’s third-graders read on grade level.
Robinson acknowledges the work remaining to be done and says that she is the best one to oversee it on behalf of District 7, which runs through Lake Park, Riviera Beach and parts of West Palm Beach, Lake Worth, Lantana, Boynton Beach and Delray Beach.
The district was drawn up in 2000 to include many of the county’s predominantly black neighborhoods, an effort to help ensure that an African-American would win a seat on what was then an all-white school board. Robinson, who won the seat that year, is the only board member to ever represent the redrawn district.
A veteran of nearly two decades on the board and years of education activism before that, Robinson points out that anyone who would replace her would have a significant learning curve.
The school district is a large, complex organization that takes years to understand well, she said. Ferguson, she suggested, has not studied the issues and the school system enough to be ready to replace her.
“I need to pass the baton to somebody who’s prepared to run with it,” Robinson said. “I do not want to see this district going backwards.”
It’s a point that Ferguson dismisses.
Though he concedes that Robinson is experienced and has made positive changes during her tenure, he criticized her style as combative and said she “struggles to build consensus.” Robinson has occasionally clashed with fellow board members and district officials.
“There’s always going to be a learning curve,” he said. “But what are your interpersonal skills? There’s always somebody who knows more than you.”
Among her recent achievements, Robinson pointed to her efforts to push for more screening of children for gifted classes — something that could improve the racial imbalances in those advanced classes.
She said she has also worked with the county’s Children’s Services Council, on whose board she sits, to get new curriculum for several private pre-kindergarten centers in the Riviera Beach and West Palm Beach area.
Robinson has also helped to create new choice programs in her district, including a fire academy at Palm Beach Lakes High School and an all-male leadership academy at Roosevelt Middle School.
But in recent years, Ferguson counters, Robinson has too little to show for her time in office, and it is time for someone else to step in.
Ferguson, a star athlete at Suncoast High School who played linebacker on the University of Central Florida’s football team, taught as a substitute teacher and then as a full-time math teacher at Palm Beach Lakes High School from 2001 to 2002.
He later went to law school and now runs his own law firm in Riviera Beach, where he focuses on litigation and real estate transactions. He is also a volunteer member of the county government’s planning commission.
While most school board members focus their efforts on children enrolled in the public schools, Ferguson said the school district’s attention should be focused more on children in their pre-school years.
While not calling for the district to pay to support the private day care and pre-K centers that provide most such services, he said that the district should do more to provide support and guidance to them, including providing recommended curriculum.
Ferguson also says all schools should have metal detectors, a proposal that district leaders reject as costly and logistically unfeasible.
Robinson has attracted endorsements from the county teachers union and many local elected officials, including West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio.
She also has a fundraising advantage. Through Aug. 2, she had collected $66,500 in political donations, including contributions from teachers, police and school worker unions, construction companies and Florida Crystals Corp.
Ferguson has collected a total of $48,300, including contributions from many local attorneys and U.S. Sugar.
The election will be held Aug. 28. Early voting begins Aug. 13.
Debra L. Robinson
City: West Palm Beach
Education: Medical degree, Howard University
Profession: Retired physician
Quote: “I do not want to see this district start sliding backwards.”
City: Riviera Beach
Education: Law degree, Barry University School of Law
Quote: “We have to do a much better job of preparing our workforce.”