This is part of a series of profiles of candidates for Pinellas County School Board in 2022.
Florida Politics invited each contender in the race to take part in a seven-question interview — giving them an opportunity to talk about qualifications, platforms and priorities.
Dawn Peters is running for Pinellas County School Board District 3 at large.
Here is our conversation with Peters:
Florida Politics: What are three important qualities and/or qualifications you have that will make you an effective asset to the Pinellas County School Board?
Peters: Well, thank you for the question. I am a Florida native, and I’ve lived in Pinellas County for quite some time, since 1996. Both of my daughters have attended Pinellas County schools from kindergarten. My youngest is now dual enrolled in her last year in high school. So that gives me some insight as a parent, but that’s just a little bit about me.
We have a lot of current School Board members who are or were previously educators. And up to now, I think that’s really been the majority of School Board makeups across the country. I feel like now is a really good time to have some new perspectives on our School Board.
My background is a professional background in property management for multifamily housing, for a Fortune 500 company. I did that for 15 years, and that work experience provided me with a wide range of skills and experiences including managing people in their homes, dealing with contractors, overseeing budgets, managing employees, and more.
I had to wear a lot of hats. So, I feel like that gives me perspective on a wide range of things that we’re going to be dealing with on the School Board as a School Board member.
But most importantly, I’m a mother, and we certainly need the perspective of parents who have had children, especially in our Pinellas County school system. And mine have gone through many different programs. They went to their neighborhood elementary school, and they had to do the application processes to attend magnet middle schools. They toured trade and vocational programs in consideration for high school options, and they ended up attending a Pinellas County school charter high school.
So, I have the perspective as a parent and know how all those processes work, and I also recognized how we should amplify and promote all of those different options that are amazing opportunities for our young people in our schools.
But we need to get those programs out to other kids whose parents aren’t as actively involved in seeking them out. I have that perspective on how we can really promote and amplify those program options to all of our students so that every child in Pinellas County has the opportunity to attend these amazing programs that we already have in our schools.
I am also a certified Pinellas County School mentor, and I did that for many years. I mentored many young people in our community, and having that perspective of working with those children who are from a different background with a different family is another important perspective that I would have as a School Board member. I have first-hand experience on the needs of these young people and their families.
I believe that all of these aspects of my background make me a good candidate for the Pinellas County School Board.
FP: Why do you want to serve on the Pinellas County School Board?
Peters: The first reason involves being inspired by the children that I mentored and also to touch on the trade and vocational programs available for students. I want to tie those together because I don’t feel like there are a lot of children within our community that are even aware those programs exist.
We need to get more information out there to those families so that they can have access to those free, amazing opportunities. Also, from my experience, I have a keen idea of how we can do that in ways that are truly beneficial. Also, we need to give our children more of a voice and our families more of a voice on our School Board and ensure that they are aware of the opportunities that we offer and how to access them.
FP: What are the top three priority issues you feel the Pinellas County School Board needs to address, and how do you believe they should be addressed?
Peters: Number one is illiteracy. The fact that our current School Board is not addressing our literacy gap as the number one priority within our school system is appalling to me.
We are putting funding into additional districts and administrative positions, equity training programs that deal with social and emotional learning, and things like that. Well, none of that is going to help our young people when the number one issue is illiteracy. If they can’t read, none of these other programs are going to benefit them.
I think that is the number one thing that we can address, and we can start addressing that today. So, reallocation of funds and conversations focused on benefiting our literacy gap as 40% of our fourth graders cannot read at a fourth-grade level. How is that not the number one issue within our school system? I just don’t understand that.
The second issue, I believe, is school safety, and we can elaborate a little bit more later as you address that topic specifically. But I’ve had conversations with Sheriff (Bob) Gualtieri and he actually endorsed me based on these conversations and our mutual agreement that we definitely need to increase our school safety, especially considering the things that are going on around the country — where there are instances not just within our schools, but across the country with violence at malls and other public places, plus in our schools — that safety plans for public safety are vital.
I believe Pinellas County has done a lot to benefit that, but we need to do a lot more. And again, I can elaborate on that later.
Third, we need to get back to basics in our education. We need to stop teaching and promoting ideologies. Schools are supposed to teach academics, and ideologies are supposed to be taught at home. Academics are reading, writing, arithmetic, civics and real history. That’s what we teach at school. If you want to teach your child ideologies in politics, you do that at home. That is not for our schools to teach.
FP: What will you do to advocate for teachers if elected to Pinellas County School Board?
Peters: I want to advocate for our teachers. We need to look at addressing the actual needs of our teachers, and we need to have those conversations with them directly.
These are the people on the front line, workers that are there every day working with our children. They should be the first people that we’re looking at in taking care of our upper administration. Everything that we look at within our school system for everything we work with within our school system should be addressed from the ground up. And the ground level is our actual schools and classrooms.
We need to find ways to keep our teachers happy. We need to find ways to keep our teachers incentivized. If they need raises, let’s give them raises that match what is going on in our country right now with the increase in taxes and so forth. They can’t even afford to buy homes right now. So increasing our teachers’ pay is important.
But in talking to them, we also need to discover what will keep them incentivized to stay. This will not only keep great teachers within our schools, it will raise morale within the school setting overall, and it will encourage other teachers to then join our school system. It will also motivate our young people of today to want to be school teachers themselves, and that it will help with the cycle for future teachers within our classrooms.
So, I think this will help alleviate the teacher shortage that we’re having a problem with. The current School Board has instead looked at and voted for hiring foreign teachers. So, we’re wasting time, energy and resources on hiring foreign teachers instead of incentivizing our current amazing school teachers is not the way that we should go with this. We need to do much more to support our qualified teachers right here, right now.
FP: Most Pinellas County school students are too young to vote, but if they could vote, why should they vote for you?
Peters: That’s an awesome question, and nobody else has asked that question. You know, I want to be a voice for our children. I don’t see any evidence that we are asking our children what they need in our schools, what works for them, what doesn’t work for them, and collect and prioritize their different viewpoints.
As I’m running my campaign for School Board, I frequently engage my daughters in these conversations to get their perspectives on what is really going on from their lens. Most of what I have found is that there’s always different opinions of what we should and should not be doing.
But our children are not really given a voice in any of these conversations. They’re not encouraged to speak out. They’re not taught that their voices are strong and empowering and that they’re necessary for the environment and evolution of our school system.
The old idea that children should be seen and not heard is such a thing of the past. And we need to teach our children how to think critically for themselves, not what to think. And all of us need to embrace all the diversity and thoughts and not discourage them from speaking out against whatever the most popular narrative is, which is the environment that our children are describing that they experience.
They can be taught to speak up in an intelligent and respectful manner, which is how I’ve taught my children to speak up. And, you know, all their opinions are welcome as they speak again to different ideas and concepts from their own points of view.
FP: What role does or can the School Board play to address performance gaps among students in the classroom, particularly those who have specific needs?
Peters: So much of the performance gaps among our students have to be evaluated on a school-by-school basis, and in some cases, a classroom-by-classroom basis.
We can start with additional funding and instructional support staff in those schools and classrooms that need it. It needs to be examined and reevaluated every year because these classrooms change, the schools change and the populations and needs of every school change.
I don’t feel that every school should receive an equal amount of money because each school has different needs. We need to have those discussions with the administrative staff and instructional staff within our schools to find out how we can meet the needs of each situation. And they are supposed to be involved in making those decisions with us.
FP: School safety is a topic on many people’s minds from school shootings and violence or bullying on campus to general disruptive behavior and even the need to keep kids safe from infectious diseases. At best, these issues can be major distractions to learning. At worst, they can be deadly. What are your thoughts on the needs and strategies to keep students safe at school?
Peters: There are a lot of things tied into that question. So yes, let’s unwrap that. From school shootings and violence and bullying on campus, obviously we know for a fact that there is evidence that shows that in some previous school shootings there were some mental health issues and bullying issues that should have been addressed earlier on.
Now, that isn’t always the case, but it is sometimes the case. So, this can be addressed by schools referring students who are bullying and paying attention to those signs of students who are withdrawn or appear to be in pain and reaching out to get them the support they need, quickly.
You see something, saying something, but also ensuring that students, teachers and administrators have the confidence that when those things are reported, they are taken seriously and they aren’t just going to get blown off. Because when people see that their concerns are blown off, not taken seriously, then they stop saying something about what they’re seeing.
In conversations with law enforcement overall, they would rather get too many complaints or have too many calls to prevent something, than have people ignore things leading to something very bad happening. That’s just our law enforcement across the board.
Now, as far as school safety within our schools, you can’t have enough safety. For example, our Guardian program, we can increase the amount of people trained in that Guardian program currently in our schools, increasing the amount of administration and teachers who also want to be trained in that program so that we have more people that are who can help address situations should they occur.
This is most beneficial to our schools. And the more people that know that we have a high volume of people trained in each school in these defensive maneuvers and programs, this serves as a deterrent from people acting badly. This is the best defense that we have as far as bullying and violence prevention, and that’s a really big issue.
Part of what happens with bullying, from my perspective and the perspective of my children and the children that I have mentored, we really need to stop giving all these labels to all these kids. We give more labels to give more inclusion, but really, that has an opposite effect. The more labels you put out there, the more categories, the more fuel that gives people to target people of a different group.
If we can stop giving all these labels out to kids and start giving more inclusion to just everybody, everybody matters. Everybody is loved. Everybody’s opinion counts, and everybody’s ideas matter. We can start promoting an overall environment of inclusion and compassion for every single child.
When we start nurturing and creating that environment, I think that will help give kids a different opinion and a different perspective on everybody overall. It doesn’t matter where you come from. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like. Everybody matters and should be loved and have compassion for each other.
Plus, teaching our children how to deal with bullying on their own, empowering their own voice and their own actions is vital. And that’s how I taught my kids to deal with bullying. After that, they had no more problems when they started just taking care of themselves and then also defending other young people when they noticed that they were getting bullied.
These are behavioral issues that have to be addressed one-on-one, but again, that’s up to having more instructional and staff that can help address those situations on a class-by-class basis as needed.
About infectious diseases, we all know that kids spread germs in schools. It doesn’t matter what grade you’re in, it doesn’t matter what you do in school. That’s just life. People interacting with other people spread germs. Kids get sick, they build immunities, and they get better.
If parents are concerned with that for their own children, then they should address that on their own. If they’re more concerned with their child interacting with another child because they’re afraid of them getting a disease, then that’s an issue for that parent alone. Our schools overall shouldn’t be forced to address the fear of one or two parents across an entire district.
I think this is just such a great time for everybody to look at our schools and our School Boards. It’s wonderful to see how many people are stepping up to the plate to run for these candidacies, and I’m proud to be one of those people.
I think I will be a great addition to our School Board. I will be a voice for teachers, parents and students alike, and our in-service staff as well; they often get overlooked. I respond to every communication on my own. So my website is VoteDawnPeters.com, and you can reach out to me through all of my platforms from my website.