Candidates clash over classroom priorities, religious beliefs in Collier County School Board forum

Candidates for Collier County School Board at the Destiny Church in Naples, Fla. on May 21. (Photo: Author)

May 24, 2022 by David Silverberg

The differences between experienced, secular incumbents seeking re-election to the Collier County Board of Education and religiously-driven challengers were on full display this past Saturday, May 21, at a candidate forum held by the Christian Conservative Coalition at the Destiny Church in Naples.

The forum featured nine candidates for School Board seats for districts 1, 3 and 5, which are up for election this year in a non-partisan race. If candidates succeed in winning 50 percent plus one majorities in the Aug. 23 primary they will be elected, otherwise the election will be decided on Nov. 8.

About 100 people attended the two-hour forum, which featured candidates making opening statements then answering prepared questions from the moderator, Chad Taylor. Each candidate was given one minute to answer the question after being picked in random order.

In District 1 Jory Westberry is the incumbent board member. Opposing her are challengers Kimberly Boobyer, a golf teacher and coach, and Jerry Rutherford, a retired life insurance salesman and painting contractor.

In District 3, incumbent Jen Mitchell, the board’s chair, is up against challengers Kelly Lichter, a former teacher and charter school founder, and Jana Greer, a businesswoman.

In District 5, incumbent Roy Terry is facing challengers Tim Moshier, a former trucking company executive, and Ana Turino, an academic mentor.

The three incumbents all have extensive experience either on the board or in the education system. Terry has 44 years in the Collier County school system as a teacher, principal and coach; Mitchell noted her 25 years in Naples and her record since joining the board in 2018 of bringing up Collier County school standards; and Westberry cited her experience as a teacher, administrator and parent and grandparent of students in the county schools.

Opening questions

School boards across the country have gone from relatively quiet and obscure local government agencies to intense ideological battlegrounds in the aftermath of the pandemic, mask mandates, the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 insurrection. Steve Bannon, former strategic advisor to Presdient Donald Trump has stated that Trump believers will take back the country “village by village” at the local level, including school boards.

Collier County is no exception to this effort.

This forum emphasized religious differences. The Coalition’s promotion of the event promised “we will be asking the questions no one else has the courage to ask” and with three districts in play, “we have the POWER to gain the majority and change the liberal policies indoctrinating our children.” 

According to its website, the Coalition is an organization that seeks to mobilize Christian leaders and believers for political “projects, campaigns, and organizations.” It states: “We are about enlisting new conservative Christian ‘boots on the ground’ –  then training, motivating, and informing these believers in Christ via our email newsletter, special events, and monthly meetings,” (The organization’s Facebook page has 1,261 followers.)

The candidates knew they were playing to a religious audience, which may have intensified the zealotry of their responses, especially among the challengers, while incumbents answered from experience and knowledge of the system.

Given its religious setting and ideological hosting organization, the forum’s first three questions—and numerous questions thereafter—were heavily weighted toward emotional, hot-button issues.

When asked the first question, “Should biological males be allowed to compete in female sports?” all the candidates called for the separation of men and women in sports. However, given her experience, Mitchell pointed out that males and females have to be separated to comply with state law and Collier County is no exception.

Asked the second question, “What is your stance on abortion and how would it guide your school policies?” Mitchell noted that she was the result of her mother’s decision to keep her when abortion was an option, so she had a personal connection to the question. However, she also noted that in school, “It’s important to distinguish between information and teaching” and abortion is not part of the curriculum. Parents can opt their children out of instruction when sexual matters are discussed. Westberry also pointed out the school does not have a policy to teach abortion and Terry added that the only students who get the reproductive curricula are in eighth grade.

However, the challengers vied with each other to demonstrate the depth of their opposition to abortion. Boobyer cited her Catholic faith and said she wanted all abortion abolished. Turino called for abstinence and said she would not even “take puppies from dogs.” Greer said that abortion “absolutely should not be allowed” and all references to it in teaching materials should be removed. Lichter said she would ensure that there was no promotion of abortion or references to Planned Parenthood. Rutherford said that if a girl gets pregnant the school should inform the parents and there should be no teaching of abortion.

On the third question: “How should American exceptionalism and Marxism be taught in schools?” Mitchell pointed out that while existing textbooks emphasized American exceptionalism, the stories of Marxism and Fascism are also taught “because how else will students know just how exceptional we are?” Westberry agreed that American exceptionalism should be promoted and that when the histories of Marxism and other ideologies are taught, it “be taught at the appropriate grade level.” Terry, who noted his father’s service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, thought that students should understand the nature of Marxism.

The challengers were more emphatic. Turino wanted American exceptionalism taught “at kindergarten.” Marxism and communism, she argued, shouldn’t be taught before high school and then the failure of countries adhering to those ideologies should be emphasized. Rutherford too wanted Marxism taught as a failure. Moshier accused the current school administration of pushing Marxism. Boobyer not only wanted Marxism taught as evil along with the Holocaust but she made a point of calling for the teaching of flag etiquette. Greer wanted to make sure students did not “believe that socialism or Marxism is the way to go.”

The 38 percent debate

To the degree that the forum became a debate, it focused on a charge by Boobyer that the existing school board is ignoring 38 percent of Collier County students whom she said were failing math and reading.

Mitchell responded that that was simply “not true.” Rather, 38 percent were not at grade level. “To say they are failing is an insult to our students and teachers,” she said, pointedly noting that “we need to be respectful of one another.” Rather, she explained, the school system had achieved a record high 92.7 percent graduation rate, maintained an “A” district status for the last four years, and outperformed state standards in all 21 areas subject to tests, all this coming under her tenure.

Westberry also took issue with Boobyer’s 38 percent charge. “We have 91 different dialects spoken in school,” she said. “Some of the students come without any English at all. That we have only 38 percent [below grade level] is a miracle and a testament to what [teachers] do.”

Another brief point of contention came when Moshier, citing his experience running a trucking business and cutting back in bad times, said that he would cut the education budget “and put more money back in our pockets.” To which Terry replied: “Cut the budget? Tell us what you’re going to cut out” and listed a variety of schoolroom and extracurricular activities that while vital, might go under the knife in a broad and indiscriminate slicing.

Rules and rebellion

One question that went to the heart of the election race was: “Are you willing to take a stand for what is right even if the rules say otherwise?”

Unsurprisingly, all candidates said they would stand up for whatever is right and cited times when they stood up for principle.

However, the answers also revealed the secular-religious divide between them.

Terry noted many times when he had confronted the superintendent and said he could not support a particular activity. “My whole thought is if it’s not good for the students we shouldn’t be doing it,” he said. Mitchell said she had taken a stand opposing use of sexual materials unless parents approved. When it came to masking during the worst of the pandemic the board had followed health department directives, she pointed out, saying, “I uphold the Constitution and follow the law.” Westberry said: “I have proven I am willing to take a stand on things.”

But a number of challengers said they would follow a different law.

“I will always stand up for just laws under God’s law,” said Boobyer. Rutherford said he would stand for the law “unless it’s against God’s law. God’s law comes first.” Greer said she would “always stand up for the Biblical world view.”

Commentary: Realism versus religion

The next candidate forum for school board is on June 21, hosted by Naples Better Government, League of Women Voters, Collier Citizens Council, and Greater Naples Leadership. (Details at the end of this article.)

This event will be held in a non-religious setting and will likely revolve around less religiously driven questions.

It was clear from Saturday’s forum, however, that there is a strong religious element driving the challengers to the current school board. Particular examples of this were candidates Boobyer, Greer, Turino and Rutherford.

However, while decrying “indoctrination” of students with values of logical reasoning, free inquiry and critical thinking, they would seek to impose their own religious views on the school system if elected—in other words, true indoctrination in the sense of inculcating a doctrine.

But that raises the question of which doctrine: Catholic? Protestant? Evangelical? Imposing religious beliefs conjures the specter of doctrinal conflict. When they created the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the nation’s founders could look back on Europe’s previous 200 years of religious wars, massacres and persecutions. They wanted no part of that, which is why the first clause of the First Amendment prohibits establishment of a state religion and allows free exercise of faith. It’s what made America truly exceptional.

No question asked of the candidates at the forum put this in better perspective than: “Are you willing to take a stand for what is right even if the rules say otherwise?”

Of course any school board has to follow the law and adhere to rationally and properly formulated rules. The presumption behind the question is that there will be a difference between “right” and “rules.” It’s a false assumption. Following the law and obeying the rules is what’s right and that’s what should be expected of school board members. Candidates can follow whatever they think is God’s law in their private lives but school board members have to adhere to state law in their official decisionmaking.

In a way it was a good thing that this was such a religiously-oriented forum because it put the religion issue on the table in the school board elections.

The fact is that the vast majority of school board work is much more mundane than this forum would suggest: managing contracts, evaluating contractors, approving purchases, dealing with personnel, budgeting, infrastructure maintenance, and overseeing the superintendent’s office are really the nuts and bolts of what a school board does and Collier County is no exception.

These are requirements that favor steadiness, experience and managerial ability rather than zealotry, faith and fervor.

A straw poll held at the end of the forum showed this audience’s preferences. They favored Rutherford in District 1, Lichter in District 3, and Moshier in District 5.

However, there are 91 days to the primary election and 168 days to the general election. A lot can happen in that time.

*  *  *

The next Collier County School Board candidate forum will take place on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, from 5:30 pm to 8:00 pm at the NABOR Conference Center, 1455 Pine Ridge Road, Naples. It is being hosted by Naples Better Government in partnership with the League of Women Voters, Collier Citizens Council, and Greater Naples Leadership. It will be broadcast on Collier Television CTV, Comcast 97, and Summit 98.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

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