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00000174-121d-d47e-a1f7-523d2c950000  WUSF News regularly collaborates with University of South Florida journalism classes in Tampa and St. Petersburg, providing students an opportunity to share their work with the greater Tampa Bay area.Some of the projects have included:“Past Plates” - a podcast and written stories produced in Spring 2017 that look into people’s memories and traditions related to food, food culture and food business in south St. Petersburg. In fall 2016, students profiled candidates running for Tampa Bay area elected offices. They  were produced as part of the USF Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications' Advanced Reporting or Public Affairs classes; and as part of the Media and Elections class at USF St. Petersburg’s Journalism and Mass Communications Department.In 2015, WUSF journalists joined the USFSP Neighborhood News Bureau in creating oral histories of residents of St. Petersburg's historic Midtown neighborhood. That work was featured on WUSF's Florida Matters public affairs show.

Elections 2016: Pinellas County School Board District 5 Candidate Carol Cook

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Carol Cook (center)

Carol Cook never thought it would come to this.

She planned on having a seat on the Pinellas County School Board wrapped up by now.  Instead what she has, is a fight for re-election.

Age: 65  Education: University of South Florida, bachelor’s degree  Occupation: School Board member, retired teacher  Political Experience: Pinellas County School Board member, 2000-present

“It will be a tough election to determine who will vote and how many,” she said. “I have no backup plan if I lose.”

Cook, 64, is seeking a fifth term on the School Board, and says there are several reasons she did not get the majority of votes needed to win in the primary election.

“I’m running against the union, the newspaper and the vote I took,” Cook says.

The vote Cook is referring to, is the one she cast in 2007 that some say essentially resegregated the School District by allowing black children to attend the elementary schools closest to their homes.  The result of that vote was devastating as chronicled by a Tampa Bay Times investigation, which rendered five of the District’s elementary schools, “Failure Factories.”

If given another opportunity, Cook maintains she would vote the same way.

“To have integration, shipping them all over the county was not a fair thing to do,” Cook said. “We want parent involvement but yet we take the children out of their neighborhoods, is not a good thing to do.”

Cook said she was fully invested in resurrecting the failing elementary schools, but accepts blame for not completing the mission.

“We promised money and resources, meaning more people, and that’s what we did,” Cook said. “But we kind of started focusing on graduation rates and took our focus off the schools.”

When asked if the “Failure Factories” schools are improving, Cook was candid.

“A little,” she said.  “You can’t turn a school around in a year.”

As a result of the five failing elementary schools, Mrs. Cook has gained plenty of opposition.

Dr. Ricardo Davis is the president of the Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students.  His organization is involved in a lawsuit against the Pinellas County School Board.  Davis wants the courts to force school leaders to help struggling black students.

Because of legal ramifications, Dr. Davis could not comment directly on Carol Cook’s performance, but spoke in generalities.

“It’s safe to say there needs to be improvements [from the School Board],” Dr. Davis said Davis is not alone in his criticism.  Cooks opposition in November’s election has taken aim at her, as well.

“She has been on the board for 16 years, it’s time for a change,” Eliseo Santana told a crowd at a School Board forum recently. “We need the schools to prison pipeline to stop.”

Santana, who is seeking his first term on the School Board, explained to the audience at St. Petersburg College, that he is not a career politician.

Cook said she admires Santana’s fresh perspective, but says now is not the time for someone with no experience to sit on the School Board.

“Having new blood, just to have new blood, now is not the time, “Cook said. “We have new challenges and we’re trying new things.”

With 16-years of experience, Cook is confident she is the right person to lead the School Board through those challenges.

“I don’t get emotional about decisions, “she said. “I think I have provided leadership and stability [to the School Board].”

It is that decision making that impressed Carol’s husband, Ed, when they first met as students at the University of South Florida.

“She was always upfront,” Ed Cook said. “She does a remarkable job.”

The Cooks live in Clearwater and have been married for 43 years.  They have two, grown children. 

Their son Cameron, 36, and daughter Courtney, 31, are both products of Pinellas County Schools .  Cook says things are different now.

“A lot has changed in the expectations of the state,” Cook said.”  The requirements of the state, the standards and the test keep changing.”

With all this change, Cook says the need for quality educators will always be a constant.

“It’s about putting good teachers in front of our students,” she said. “It’s about equipping the teachers with what they need to be good teachers.”

To equip and attract good teachers takes money Cook said, which is a big challenge in Florida.  Cook says the state is one of the lowest in funding in the United States.

“You need money to operate a school; 83 percent [of the budget] goes to employee salaries,” she said.

Cook says the School Board could always use more money, but says the goal remains the same.

“Our mission is to prepare each child for college, career and life,” Cook says.

Cook has been trying to carrying out this mission for most of her adult life, first as an educator and then as a member of the Parent Teacher Association.  

Nearly two decades ago, Cook swore she would never run for School Board, only to find herself as the longest tenured member of the School Board. From a job she never wanted to on she does not want to leave, Carol Cook said she is hoping the voters give another four years.

“The District is heading in a fantastic direction and I want to be a part of it,” she said.

Brad Shellgren is a student journalist attending the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Journalism and Mass Communications Department. This story was produced as part of the Media and the Elections class this semester, under the leadership of instructor Robert Hooker.