Forum preview: The Collier County School Board and the battle for students’ minds

Candidates for the Collier County School Board appearing at a forum tomorrow night, June 21.

June 20, 2022 by David Silverberg

Tomorrow, Tuesday, June 21, Collier County, Florida, will have its only formal, neutrally-moderated forum for all candidates running for three places on the Collier County School Board.

The in-person forum will be at the Naples Conference Center in the Naples Board of Realtors building, 1455 Pine Ridge Road at 5:30 pm. It will be netcast and streamed by public television station WGCU at WGCU.org and covered by both the Fort Myers News-Press and the Naples Daily News.

The forum is being sponsored by a spectrum of mainstream, good-government organizations: the League of Women Voters, the Collier Citizens Council and Greater Naples Leadership.

The primary election is scheduled for Aug. 23, with early voting beginning on Aug. 13. Candidates will win if they receive 50 percent of the vote plus one. If not, they will proceed to the general election on Nov. 8.

Given the intensity of interest and the passions that have been generated over education governance during the past two years, this forum has a significance way beyond the usual specialized and relatively obscure contest that it has been in the past.

The policies, oversight and administration of education now constitute a battlefield between competing worldviews and political agendas. In addition, although school board elections are non-partisan, the Collier County Republican Party has weighed in with endorsements, as have other groups and individuals.

It is this clash of worldviews, their implications for Collier County public education and the likely impact on students’ minds that voters should monitor and evaluate as they watch this forum.

From an analytic standpoint, this year’s slate of candidates can be divided into three categories: educators, newcomers and ideologues.

The educators

The educators are already serving the Board of Education. All are running on their records and expertise, which collectively is quite considerable. All have spent time in different educational positions, from teachers to administrators. Further, all have experience with the nuts and bolts of school system administration, from budgeting, to purchasing, to contracting, to personnel management, which is really what represents the bulk of school board duties.

But more importantly, all represent a service-oriented, secular, objective, apolitical approach to public education.

District 1: Jory Westberry

District 1 covers Lely Elementary, Lely High, Manatee Elementary, Manatee Middle, Marco Island Academy, Marco Island Charter Middle, Parkside Elementary, Shadowlawn Elementary, and Tommie Barfield Elementary.

Originally from Wyoming before moving to Naples in 1989, Westberry, vice chair of the school board, has a long history in education. In addition to undergraduate and master degrees in education she holds a doctorate in educational administration with honors from the University of Miami. She’s served as both an elementary and middle school teacher, and is a winner of the prestigious Golden Apple Teacher award. She went into administration and served as an assistant principal and principal at Tommie Barfield Elementary for 14 years. After retirement she mentored new teachers through the C-Certs Program.

Westberry was elected to the board in 2018 when she ran unopposed. But this year she’s facing two challengers.

“Over the past months there has been a vocal minority that disrupts school board meetings, not only in Collier County, but coordinated across the US, ostensibly to make changes in policies and procedures,” she states on her campaign website. “However, most of the policies and procedures they want to change are controlled by the State of Florida, the Florida Department of Education and the federal government. I will follow the laws.”

Westberry is promising continuity and says she wants to work with “a fully functional Board” and calls for flexibility, communications, trust and support for teachers to “continue to make positive progress.” 

District 3: Jen Mitchell

District 3 consists of BridgePrep Academy of Collier, Calusa Park Elementary, Golden Gate Elementary, Golden Gate Middle, Golden Gate High, Golden Terrace Elementary, Gulf Coast High, Laurel Oak Elementary, Mike Davis Elementary, Oakridge Middle, and Vineyards Elementary.

Originally from Lafayette, Indiana, Mitchell, chair of the school board, has lived in Naples for the past 21 years. She has a degree in elementary education from Purdue University and taught for a year at Naples Park Elementary. She remained home as a full-time mother after having her first child but was active in a variety of educational advisory boards and committees. She returned to the workforce in 2014 as a real estate agent before running and being elected to the school board in 2018.

Mitchell is relying on her school board record in her run for re-election. Her message rests firmly on the nuts and bolts of school administration. She points to a district strategic plan that she helped draft, expanded career and technical education options for students, raising grades and testing results, sound financial management and budgeting that has passed numerous audits and increased teacher pay and raised standards.  

Weathering the two previous years of pandemic was perhaps Mitchell’s greatest achievement and also point of vulnerability. The school system faced challenges that were daunting by any standard: pivoting to online learning, steering through debates over masking and mandates, and even ensuring that students were fed properly.

“While districts around the country were throwing in the towel, we were innovating to create opportunities and to ensure the best possible learning outcomes for our students, which continues today,” she writes on her campaign website.

It was precisely the battles over mask mandates that first generated the most heat at school boards in Southwest Florida and created the wave of opposition that continues today. Exactly one year ago on June 21, after an initial mandate, the board unanimously voted to make masks optional for the next school year.

Essentially, Mitchell wants to continue the work she has already done and take it up a notch. “We need a school board that will continue to set politics and personal agendas aside, collaborate, and focus on the nearly 48,000 students who are counting on us to get it right,” she states.

District 5: Roy Terry

District 5 consists of Bethune Education Center, Big Cypress Elementary, Collier Charter Academy, Corkscrew Elementary, Corkscrew Middle, Cypress Palm Middle, Eden Park Elementary, Estates Elementary, Everglades City School, Highlands Elementary, Immokalee Middle, Immokalee High, Immokalee Technical Center, Lake Trafford Elementary, Naples Classical Academy, Palmetto Elementary, Palmetto Ridge High, Pinecrest Elementary, RCMA Immokalee Community Academy, Sabal Palm Elementary, and Village Oaks Elementary.

Originally from Maryland, Terry received his master’s degree in education from Colorado State University and began working as a teacher in Baltimore, Md., before moving to Naples. For the past 35 years he’s held every position in the education system, from teacher to assistant principal to principal before joining the school board. He was extensively involved in athletics, serving as a coach and athletic director and winning numerous “coach of the year” awards in baseball and football.

Terry has extensive experience with the physical complexities of Collier County’s education system. He supervised and designed Lely High School’s athletic field renovation and helped to plan, design, and supervise construction of Palmetto Ridge High School. 

In running this year, Terry is seeking his fourth term on the board. He’s seen a lot of controversy and challenges during that time and he’s looking for a constructive approach and cooperation among school board members.

The newcomers

A May 21 school board forum sponsored by the Christian Conservative Coalition featured nine candidates but two more have joined the lineup since then, both seeking the seat in District 5.

One is Arthur Boyer. A native of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Boyer has lived the past 30 years in Immokalee. He has a doctorate in education from Argosy University and has been involved in educational activities in and around Immokalee for the past 18 years. During the worst of the pandemic, he organized a free virtual tutoring program for students that attracted other educators and helped students.

On his campaign website, Boyer calls for equitable education, a commitment to special education, teacher recognition and support, parental involvement and classrooms that reflect the whole community.

“Collier County Public School should consider a learner-driven education system,” he states. “CCPS Policies should reflect the vision, the challenges, the assets, and the best interests of Collier County.”

Jacqualene “Jackie” Keay is also seeking the seat in District 5.

Born in the Bahamas, Keay moved to Naples as a young child and graduated from Lely High School in 1988. She served in the US Army, living in Germany for 17 years before returning to Southwest Florida in 2015. With a master’s degree in psychology, she homeschooled her children for 10 years and taught for two years at Mason Classical Academy. She’s been deeply involved in community organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Empty Bowls and served on the board of Audubon Western Everglades.

“My aim is to motivate informed understanding by connecting the parents, educators, and elected officials,” she states on her campaign website.  “Our mission will be to ensure our students have the education, skills, and tools needed to compete for and secure jobs in the global world.”

The ideologues

The other challengers for seats on the Collier County school board this year are driven by ideological passions, whether religious or political.

The challenger with the most educational experience is Kelly Lichter, who is running in District 3. She served as a high school teacher and founded Mason Classical Academy charter school and from 2014 to 2018 sat on the Collier County School Board.

At that time Lichter and fellow board member Erika Donalds aggressively pushed charter schools, which though private, were under the oversight of the board.

As reported by the Naples Daily News, during her tenure, “Lichter has frequently engaged in shouting matches during board meetings, prompting negative feedback from education advocates online, at board meetings and in the Naples Daily News opinion and Letters to the Editor sections.” The same article stated that “…Lichter received criticism for sending emails to other board members accusing them of collusion and lying.”

Lichter also had a falling out with Erika Donalds, wife of Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), accusing her and others of what she said appeared to be “an unlawful and hostile takeover of Mason Classical Academy, Inc.”

Lichter’s positions on school board issues include ending the teaching of “socialist dogma” like “social justice, transgender bathrooms, global warming, climate change, Critical Race Theory.”

She’s been endorsed by the Collier County Republican Party, Patriot Parents, the Christian Conservative Coalition, Rogan O’Hadley, whose stage name is “DC Draino,” and conservative farmer and grocer Francis Alfred “Alfie” Oakes III.

(During a speech at Patriot Fest on March 19 in Naples’ Sugden Park, Oakes gave his criteria for school board endorsements: “I don’t want to hear about what IQ someone has or what level of education someone has,” he said. “Common sense and some back is all we need right now.”)

Among the other ideologically-driven challengers Jerry Rutherford, an insurancesalesman and painter,is running in District 1. Rutherford has been attending school board meetings for 35 years. His slogan is “rectitude, reliability, resilience” and on his campaign website he states (capitalization his) that “Constitutionalism, Acknowledgement of Natural Law in the affairs of Government, and traditional American Culture need to be returned to the classrooms of Collier County, Florida,”

When he endorsed Rutherford at Patriot Fest, Oakes noted that while Rutherford might be too old to know how to use a computer, Thomas Jefferson also didn’t know how to use a computer.

Also running in District 1 is Kimberly Boobyer, a golf teacher and coach, who states on her campaign website: “I am a conservative, Christian mother who believes in civic responsibility, and taking action” and wants to restore the education system “to its former glory.”

Jana Greer is a candidate in District 3. She’s a businesswoman who states on her campaign website that “While the radical left continues to push their agenda onto our children, we need a bold conservative School Board to stand up for our values.”

In District 5 Timothy Moshier, a former trucking company executive, is running on a platform of ensuring that schools teach “what really matters.” Interestingly, while his campaign website is entirely dedicated to himself, it has nothing at all related to education, the schools or his vision, positions or solutions on school board issues. Moshier has been endorsed by the Collier County Republican Party and Alfie Oakes.

Also running in District 5 is Ana Turina, whose slogan on her campaign website is “Dedication, Passion, Rectitud” [sic, as spelled]. She states that she wants to be the protector of parental rights and keep “inappropriate materials, media and [critical race theory] out of our schools!”

Analysis: Education or indoctrination?

Traditionally, public education in the United States was more or less based on Enlightenment ideals of promoting independent critical thinking, democratic values, objectivity and respect for facts and science in a secular environment.

For a long time this approach in public education has been under attack but never more so than since the presidency of Donald Trump. The counter argument now is that such values represent “indoctrination” and need to be countered. In Florida no organization has promoted this idea more than the Florida Citizens Alliance, which argues that “Florida children are being indoctrinated in a public school system that undermines their individual rights and destroys our nation’s founding principles and family values.”

It seems as though the critics can’t believe that a young person’s own rational thought, objective observation and sense of fairness could lead to a liberal political outlook. Clearly, in their minds, that’s impossible because any sane person would naturally be politically conservative. They suspect there’s a culprit at work and that culprit is public school “indoctrination.”

In the past the arguments over education might have remained confined to educational circles but two years of pandemic and fights over mask mandates and lockdowns, a sense that ideologically-driven parents were not being heeded and the hyper-politicization of all American life has sharpened the divides over education.

But it’s also clear that in this Collier County election there is a stark difference between the incumbent educators with experience and expertise and challengers who are fueled by passion, doctrine and ideology. The latter seem more focused on restricting students’ minds than broadening them.

One has to wonder what kind of people Collier County’s public schools would produce if the ideologues have their way.

These will be the underlying—and overt—issues that can be expected to be aired at the forum tomorrow night.

Whatever else that forum may be, at the very least, it shouldn’t be boring.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

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