She has high kicked with the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, shared a stage with Jimmy Durante, managed a city department in Las Vegas and taught in public elementary schools in south Pinellas County.
Now Joanne Lentino wants another job: Pinellas County School Board member.
Education: University of Nevada Las Vegas, bachelor’s degree
Occupation: Retired elementary school teacher
Political Experience: Unsuccessful candidate for St. Pete Beach City Commission, 2015
These are uneasy times for the county school district, and Lentino, 67, says she has the experience, the time and the commitment that the board needs.
“Public service has always been in my heart,” she said when she unsuccessfully sought a seat on the St. Pete Beach City Commission in 2014. “I think a love of public service is paramount.”
Lentino and Matt Stewart were the top vote-getters in a four-candidate field for the District 1 seat in the Aug. 30 primary with 32 and 30 percent of the vote respectively.
As they head toward the Nov. 8 runoff, Lentino has a slight edge in contributions, $33,812 to Stewart’s $31,490.
She also has the endorsement of the Pinellas County teachers union, which seemed to help spur $10,000 in donations from labor groups.
Stewart, 36, can counter with a lifetime in Pinellas County, two advanced degrees and the support of the Tampa Bay Times editorial board.
It was the Times that helped set the stage for School Board races this year.
In 2015, it published a series about five elementary schools in predominantly black St. Petersburg neighborhoods that it called “Failure Factories.”
When the School Board voted in 2007 to end desegregation efforts in the county, it promised to provide extra financial and instructional support to schools in black neighborhoods. But the board failed to meet that commitment, the Times found, and the results were catastrophic.
Standardized test results put the five elementary schools in the bottom 15 in the state. Disciplinary problems soared at the schools, the newspaper reported, and veteran teachers left for safer, more stable schools.
Before the primary, the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association endorsed both Lentino and Stewart. But in the general elections, it is backing Lentino.
“Joanne had already been endorsed by the Central Labor Council (of the Florida AFL-CIO),” said PCTA president Mike Gandolfo. “We felt that we needed to support the labor candidate.”
Since the PCTA endorsement, more than $10,000 in donations have poured into her campaign from labor groups, including the state AFL-CIO in Tallahassee and the International Union of Operating Engineers in Miami.
The PCTA also was impressed by Lentino’s years as a teacher at Gulfport Elementary School, an underperforming school with a large percentage of minority students.
Teachers at struggling schools “understand about the (state’s) unfair evaluation system and the toxic (standardized student) testing,” which tend to penalize poorer and minority students, Gandolfo said. The PCTA maintains that teachers who have worked at those schools are more likely to understand the challenges that those students face.
Lentino did not respond to three telephone calls and an email from University of South Florida student journalists seeking information about her background and campaign platform. But her personnel file at the Pinellas School District has details of her work history, and she has laid out her positions in campaign forums, questionnaires and interviews with other publications.
She says education should begin long before kindergarten – “children 0-4 years old” – because 85 percent of a child’s brain development comes by age 3. Early learning centers for pre-kindergarten children would give them important academic and socialization skills, she has said.
She is critical of charter schools, arguing that it is “criminal” to give taxpayer money to businesses but not hold them to the same standards as regular public schools. She favors creating more magnet and fundamental schools.
Discipline problems should be addressed with what she calls “restorative justice” and more social services and behavior specialists. Children who see violence on television, in movies and in their neighborhoods are more likely to act out what they’ve observed when they come to school, she says.
Lentino, who grew up in New York and graduated from high school there, was introduced to Pinellas County when she visited her grandparents here in 1959.
She took a circuitous route to what she calls a “second career” in education.
After high school, she spent 13 years in the entertainment industry as a Rockette at Radio City, a June Taylor dancer in Miami for the Jackie Gleason television show and a dancer on Las Vegas’ famed strip, where she performed with Jimmy Durante and others.
She then spent 18 years coordinating cultural events and programs in dance and the arts for the city of Las Vegas, overseeing a staff and budget. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nevada Las Vegas in 2001.
In 2003, Lentino moved to St. Pete Beach, took classes at St. Petersburg College to earn a teaching certificate and became an elementary school teacher.
She retired two years ago and began volunteer work in schools and community organizations.
Information from the League of Women Voters of the St. Petersburg Area, the Tampa Bay Times and the Gabber newspaper was used in this report.
Kristy Andersen 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.