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Elections 2016: Pinellas County School Board District 1 Candidate Matt Stewart

Nov 2, 2016

If Matt Stewart wins election to the Pinellas County School Board, he would be its  youngest member, at 36, and the only one with a doctorate.

But another attribute, he said, would be more beneficial to the board. He’s the parent of a public school child – a distinction shared by none of the current board members. (Newly elected member Eileen Long has two children in public school.)

Age: 36

Education: St. John Vianney, bachelor’s degree; St. Vincent de Paul, master’s degree; University of South Florida, master’s and doctorate degrees

Occupation: Manger in human resources department, Hillsborough County government

Political Experience: None

“And I have a ton of energy based on education,” Stewart said, noting he received a doctorate from the University of South Florida in 2015.

He and his husband, Tim Staney, are foster parents to a 13-year-old, their fourth foster child. They experience the challenges of school children and parents daily.

Stewart was born in Clearwater and attended Walsingham Elementary, where his mother taught for 35 years. His father, a former police officer, works for the child support enforcement program at the Florida Department of Revenue. His sister is a Pinellas County firefighter. His late grandfather was an assistant superintendent of schools in Pinellas.

“My family has always been involved in public services,” he said.  

It was the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Failure Factories” series in the Tampa Bay Times that motivated him to run for School Board, Stewart said: “‘Failure Factories’ really highlighted how we’re not meeting the needs of every student.”      

In 2007, the board ended mandatory countywide desegregation, which began in 1971. It promised to provide extra revenue and staff to schools in predominantly black neighborhoods, but did not follow through. The results included dismal scores on standardized tests, with five Pinellas elementary schools in the bottom 15 in the state; serious discipline problems; and high teacher turnover rates.

When the board continued to drag its feet after the series ran, Stewart said, he grew disgruntled and decided to run.

“I can be an ally,” he said. “I need to give back.”

He knows the district, having graduated from Largo High School. He has an education background, with degrees in theology and religious studies. His doctorate from USF was in education curriculum and instruction.

Stewart said his skills would benefit him when setting policy at the School Board.

At Hillsborough County’s Human Resources Department, he said, he oversees 60 people on the talent management staff, which deals with discipline, labor relations, and performance and engagement issues for the county’s 5,000 employees.      

His plans for the School Board “would help build this community economically,” he said.

He is worried, he said, that the Times series is affecting not just schools but also the economy of Pinellas County, as corporations hear of the problems and choose to locate elsewhere.

He said the economic community can work with schools by providing mentors, internships, and technology certifications that attest to a student’s skills.

“Studies have shown that students who have a mentor do better. These are ways to expose students to things they might not otherwise consider,” Stewart said.

He proposes that schools take advantage of state-of-the-art technology, similar to what’s being used in higher education.

A student, parent, or even a teacher, looking for measurable successes would not have to wait to hear about it from the school district, he said. They would have real-time information through their computers with “front-facing dashboards” that provide updated information on student benchmarks and school assessment. 

“They are a real time summary of metrics, an autopsy of data” on measurements and statistical analysis, he said. Gains and losses are readily seen and calculated. Changes can take place before things go far askew.

He said he worries that charter schools, which operate with taxpayer money but limited government oversight, have wasted the School Board’s time and money. He said the board diverted time and attention to resolving administrative and financial problems at Windsor Preparatory and East Windsor middle schools, but eventually both had to be closed.                                          

Another problem is that “charter schools pull engaged parents and students from our public schools,” he said. 

Stewart’s opponent, Joanne Lentino, is retired and has had more time to campaign than Stewart, who was notably absent from a recent debate. In the Aug. 30 primary of four candidates, Lentino garnered 32 percent of the vote to Stewart’s 30 percent.

He said he was surprised to hear that contributions to Lentino have been pouring in lately as she steps up her game. But he said that many people have already voted by mail.

The candidates have each raised more than $30,000. Lentino has the backing of the Pinellas County Teachers Association and many labor organizations, while he has relied on support from the Times editorial board and nearly $20,000 of his own money.

While the country’s presidential race has sharpened the differences between Democrats and Republicans, Stewart said he has managed to stay nonpartisan.

“I’m proud to have endorsements from both sides,” he said, listing the Times, Equality of Florida, the Pinellas Realtor Organization, and Stonewall Democrats of Pinellas among his supporters.        

“I want to make a difference on the School Board,” Stewart said. “Being a parent is a strong attribute. That voice needs to be heard.”

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