In School Board elections less than a year away, I encouraged readers to start monitoring the candidates for School Board. It was clear that this would be an important election, with the future direction of Collier County public schools at stake. I knew that we would need many more, and more informed, voters this time around than the paltry 18 percent of registered voters that voted in 2014.
As early as last August, two then-members of the Collier County Republican Executive Committee filed to run for the seats held by incumbents Kathleen Curatolo (District 2) and Julie Sprague (District 4) in what is supposed to be a nonpartisan election, and started raising money. They were John Brunner and Lee Dixon, respectively. Click here for what I had to say about the two back then.
The state of the race today
Curatolo and Sprague are not seeking reelection, leaving both races wide open. In addition to Brunner in District 2, Louise Penta and Stephanie Lucarelli have filed to run. In addition to Dixon in District 4, Erick Carter has filed to run.
Based on their websites, statements at candidate forums (April 14, May 6, and May 18), letters to the editor and Facebook posts, it is clear that Brunner, Penta and Dixon align with the current School Board minority, and that Lucarelli and Carter align with the current Board majority.
In this post, I’ll share some of the research I’ve done about each of the candidates, and tell you who I’ll be voting for and why.
John Brunner Brunner, a Navy veteran, has 20 years of teaching experience in public, private, charter and home schools. His two children attend a local private school. He has a BS in education from Western Kentucky University and a Masters of Education from FGCU.
An online bio identified Brunner as “the leader and visionary of The Christian Classical Academy of Naples,” a school that closed due to “financial hardships” in 2014. At the candidate forum on May 18, which I attended, he said, “As a society, we have to get over the idea that public money going to private and religious schools is OK for pre-K but not when they get older.”
After his Christian Classical Academy closed, Brunner taught at Mason Classical Academy, the charter school founded by minority Board members Kelly Lichter and Erika Donalds, but is no longer listed on staff there. His LinkedIn profile shows no current employment.
Brunner shares the minority Board members’ distrust of the Superintendent and opposition to recent majority Board decisions. At the April 14 SWFL Citizens Alliance candidate forum, Brunner, along with Dixon and Penta, said he supports a separate attorney to represent the Board, an anonymous whistle-blower program, and rejecting all federal funding to avoid what they refer to as Common-Core-mandated testing.
He proposes a new “Office of the Inspector General” within the District to “field concerns of parents, conduct audits, review programs, maintain effective systems of control, provide impartial feedback, oversee the improvement of operations and identify fraud, waste, abuse and illegal acts.”
Brunner opposes CCPS’ participation in the Blue Zones Project. In a letter to the editor, he wrote, “Do we want the government telling people what to eat and how to live? … The district is a government organization. As important as nutrition is for learning, I take issue with any government organization dictating lifestyles to its citizenry.”
Brunner’s campaign website is www.johnmbrunner.com, and his Facebook pages are here and here. He has raised $18,620 through April 30, including 13 contributions of the maximum $1000 (70%) and $2,500 (13%) from out-of-county. He has made no personal loans to his campaign.
Stephanie Lucarelli Lucarelli, a former middle-school science teacher, has four children currently attending three different Collier County public schools, including one who is gifted and one with special needs. She has a BS in Natural Resource Management and a teaching certificate from Rutgers University.
Lucarelli has a strong personal interest in ensuring that Collier County Public Schools provide a quality education for children of all abilities and all ages. Her volunteer activities demonstrate that commitment. During the past 12 years, she has served on the CCPS Head Start Policy Council, the Naples Park Elementary Parent Teacher Organization, the CCPS Accreditation Team Parent Committee and as Vice President of the Naples Park Parent Teacher Organization.
As a former teacher active in her children’s classrooms, she is well-aware of the challenges teachers face. She says, “Our teachers need to be trusted to make the best decisions regarding their students, as well as given more autonomy over their classrooms.”
Lucarelli supports the District’s participation in the Blue Zones Project, and sees no need to hire an internal auditor. She clearly understands that the Florida Standards are not Common Core, and that to reduce the amount of testing in our schools, we need to lobby the state legislature to change the law. At the May 18 candidate forum, she said “That’s money we’ve already collected here in Collier County. [Rejecting it] would make us the laughing stock of the whole country.”
Lucarelli’s campaign website is www.votelucarelli.com, her Facebook pages are here and here. She has raised $14,200 through April 30, including two contributions of the maximum $1000 (14%) and $505 (4%) from out-of-county, and a personal loan of $6,000.
Louise Penta Penta, a retired operating-room nurse, serves on the board of The Immokalee Foundation and was recently named Mentor of the Year by the State of Florida. She has an RN degree from Newton Junior College.
The District believes that “access to the tools and resources of a world-wide network and understanding when and how these tools are appropriately and effectively used are imperative in each student’s education.” But Penta disagrees. At the SWFL Citizens Alliance Marco Island forum, she said, “these devices don’t belong in schools,” and that teachers spend too much time monitoring what students are doing on their devices to make sure it aligns with the given directions.“ She said the District should go back to ”classical education,“ where children learn ”to write properly, read good literature, and develop math skills that will set them up for life.”
At the most recent candidate forum (which I attended), she said Florida’s Voluntary Pre-K Program should be mandatory, “especially with our diverse population,” but offered no suggestions for how to pay for it.
When asked at the May 18 forum if she would vote to “fire or retain Superintendent Patton,” Penta said, “She’s done a lot of good things, but I would want a more comprehensive evaluation of her so we could make a good decision about what has to be done.” At the April 14 Citizens Alliance Forum, she was more ominously vague, saying, “I have my own personal opinions not to share here tonight. But when a policy comes up to the School Board, decisions have already been made by the Superintendent and her Cabinet behind closed doors. That needs to change. Control needs to go back to the School Board, and get it out of the Superintendent’s hands!” – said very emphatically, and to applause.
Penta, along with District 4 candidate Dixon, was endorsed by the Collier County Republic Executive Committee. These are the CCREC’s first endorsements in School Board elections in at least a decade, according to the Naples Daily News – a clear indication of partisanship in what are supposed to be a nonpartisan elections. (For important context about this issue, see “Local GOP decides not to censure School Board chairwoman.”) According to the CCREC endorsement, “She supports internal auditing and legal representation of the board.”
Penta’s campaign website is www.louisepenta.com, her Facebook pages are here and here. She has raised $38,850 through April 30, including 18 contributions of the maximum $1000 (46%), $1,400 from out-of-county (4%), a personal loan of $15,000 (39%), and $100 from Nick and Kelly Lichter.
Erick Carter Carter, a graduate of CCPS’ Lorenzo Walker Technical College (LWTC) Cosmetology Program, has been co-owner of Salon Zenergy in Naples for the past 18 years. Further during that time, he has served as a LWTC guest instructor and student intern host, and as a national training course instructor for Conair, Rusk Products and Martin Parsons Inc. His one child attends a CCPS middle school.
As a parent, local business owner/entrepreneur and graduate of a CCPS adult learning program, Carter has a strong personal commitment to career and technical education.
Carter, like Lucarelli, opposes the proposal to reject federal funding in order to opt out of testing requirements. On his Facebook page he wrote, “Rejecting the federal funding eliminates $59 million from our budget, which will have to be raised locally for essential programs like Exceptional Student Education, English as a Second Language and lunch subsidies for low income students. You’ve already paid for this funding through your federal taxes. If we reject the funding, you will be forced to pay for it a second time.”
In response to a question at the most recent candidate forum, he expressed strong support of Superintendent Patton, citing these accomplishments under her leadership: reduced the budget (by $54 million over the past five years); increased the District’s graduation rate (from 72.5% in 2011 to 84.3% most recently), and started an entrepreneurship program (in 2013; most recently enhanced with INCubatoredu).
Carter supports the Blue Zones initiative. On his Facebook page, he wrote he is “glad that our students are learning to make healthier choices,” and pointed out another benefit as well: potentially saving the District “millions of dollars in health care costs,” which could then make more resources available for our children’s education.
Carter’s campaign website is www.erickcarter.com, his Facebook pages are here and here, and he has raised $9,500 through April 30, including one contribution of the maximum $1000 (11%), $365 from out-of-county, and personal loans of $3,500.
Lee Dixon Dixon is a member of the Collier County Republican Executive Committee and serves on the North Naples Middle School Advisory Committee. He began his career as a golf course superintendent in 1992, and is currently the golf course Grounds Manager at Miromar Lakes. He has three children, including one with special needs. He said his experience with his autistic son and the education system in the county and state prompted his run for School Board.
Dixon has many connections to critics of the School Board majority. He is (or was) vice president of Parents ROCK, the group formed by Board member Erika Donalds. Donalds “liked” his May 9 “Meet the Candidate” Facebook post and invitation to his May 19 fundraiser). Following announcement of Dixon’s candidacy, Nick Lichter, spouse of Board member Kelly Lichter, posted, “Looking forward to watching my friend Lee Dixon campaign for Collier School Board,” and subsequently contributed to his campaign. Kelly Lichter and Doug Lewis, author of the 2014 “Contract with Collier County,” were members of the Host Committee for Dixon’s Campaign Kick-Off Party.
Last year, during public comments before a School Board meeting about of the selection of Kathleen Curatolo as Board Chairman, Dixon called her “completely unqualified for the position.” He’s against CCPS’ participation in the Blue Zones project, telling ABC7 that ”the idea that an outside entity wants to come in and dictate to parents what they can and cannot put in their kids lunch box is very troubling.”
Dixon’s campaign website is www.leedixon2016.com, and his Facebook pages are here and here. He has raised $15,156 through April 30, including three contributions of the maximum $1,000 (20%), $255 from Nick Lichter, and $1,615 (11%) from out-of-county. He made no personal loans to his campaign.
How I’ll vote … and why
There is no doubt that the outcome of this election will determine the future direction of our Collier County public schools.
I want a School Board that supports the 2017 – 19 Strategic Plan recently approved by the Board majority with a 3–2 vote. I want a School Board that wants to prepare Collier’s students for success in the highly digital and STEM-oriented 21st century. I do not support changing the current curriculum or way of teaching to one more aligned with the “classical education” of the past.
I trust our qualified teachers and administrators to choose age-appropriate, factually-accurate instructional materials, and cannot imagine handing that responsibility over to any untrained layperson, parent or not, as supported by the Board minority.
I have confidence in the current Administration’s stewardship of the District’s financial resources and see no need to hire additional staff to do more. As presented at the August 2015 School Board meeting, the District undergoes three major external audits: Financial, Internal Funds and the state’s Florida Education Finance Program, and conducts 135 internal, self-assessment and monitoring audits of various kinds, many required by State or Federal departments and agencies. The current audit function is extensive, no doubt costly and time-consuming, and there is absolutely no evidence of a problem that would justify hiring an internal auditor.
Asked about the success of his wife’s August 2014 election campaign, Nick Lichter said:
Understanding the benefits of early voting was a big learning point for us. A lot of people who don’t have children don’t participate in the school board election. But early voting targeting was effective in winning their vote.
Lichter was right. If you share my concern about the future of our Collier County public schools, please share this post and urge your friends to vote in August for Lucarelli and Carter.