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.
Carl Zimmermann is running for Pinellas County School Board District 3 at large.
Here is our conversation with Zimmermann:
FP: What are the three important qualities and or qualifications you have that will make you an effective asset on the Pinellas County School Board?
Zimmermann: Well, the number one qualification is my classroom experience. I’m the only person in the race that’s actually taught in Pinellas County schools, that’s actually taught in public schools and that’s actually taught in K-12 schools, which considering that’s what the Board governs, I think that’s an important asset to have.
I know what works. I know what doesn’t work. I’ve been through it. I’ve been optimistic about some and then realized that it was a disaster approach.
Another thing is my time in the Legislature. I served on three education committees while I was there, and I was part of a lot of key pieces of legislation on the main education committee. On that committee, I had to visit the early learning classes all throughout Tampa and Pinellas, and then help set parameters to make sure they were preparing kids — not just doing day care, but preparing kids to enter kindergarten and start their public education career.
I also was part of the group that helped rename PTEC to Pinellas Technical College. And it wasn’t just in Pinellas, it was all of those schools like that throughout the state.
We wanted to make sure that kids were proud of choosing these schools after high school, because PTEC was not being chosen by a lot of high school students. We wanted to make sure that we gave them every reason to choose that. So we called it a college because I knew as a teacher that kids wanted to be able to respond to, “What college are you going to?”
We made arrangements with Saint Petersburg College so that these kids, while they go for welding at PTEC, they could also take some academic courses and within the two-year period have their associate’s degree and be licensed welders making great money. With that combination, they could pursue their careers or go to college as far as they wanted to go, keeping that pathway for higher education open for those who wanted that.
I also just recertified my teacher’s certificate. There are many strategies when you’re dealing with kids with special needs, whether it’s because English is not their first language or whether it’s because they have other special needs, physical or developmental. There are many strategies that are very effective for all kids to help them excel.
And honestly, I would like to make it a requirement that all School Board members should have to go through the same classes so that they understand the strategies for reaching these kids that are sometimes difficult or sometimes ignored and often fall between the cracks.
FP: Why do you want to serve on the Pinellas County School Board?
Zimmermann: Teachers, students and staff need help. They genuinely need help. We have never seen times like this, and I mean that because of building up to the pandemic, all the things that have been placed on teachers and staff to have to deal with the loss of security.
Teachers are now hired on a fire-at-will basis, and they deal with the loss of or changes in long-term retirement. So many of the benefits and reasons that teachers stayed have been abolished. Then, top that off with the issues the pandemic created and what we as teachers had to go through teaching during a pandemic — teaching kids that were online simultaneously with teaching kids in the classroom or one or the other was a huge challenge.
Students’ behavior was even more difficult to manage as were students who needed extra help while also giving the students who were performing the structure and challenges they needed to stay engaged.
Teachers are leaving because teachers need help. And that’s one of the reasons why I’ve had teachers thank me for running for the Pinellas County School Board as soon as I filed. Mostly, though, I want to serve because I care about education. It’s been my life for many years. It began in college when I got my degrees in education, and it’s carried through most of my life
FP: What are the top three primary issues you feel the Pinellas County School Board needs to address, and how do you believe they should be addressed?
Zimmermann: Well, changing the climate is number one. There are so many things we can’t do as a Board. You know, we are very restricted on salary and how we can allocate money. We are very restricted on how we can distribute that money for salaries.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have wiggle room there, but what we can do is we can change the attitude that has begun at the very top and trickled down from either the Superintendent or the people under the Superintendent. And it’s trickled down to all the principals, the assistant principals, and then dumped on teachers, which ultimately gets dumped on students.
This negative attitude, “I gotcha” type attitude, where people feel that they are set up to fail. You know, you are required to do these gazillion things or you’re going to get dinged on your evaluation.
The next is dealing with attendance since the pandemic. Attendance in school is horrendous. Kids get used to not having to show up.
And I’m speaking now in the higher grade levels. Elementary schools, thankfully those kids, they just love to show up. They love to be there. But kids in middle and high school grades have gotten used to not showing up through the pandemic. Overall, their attitude has changed, and they treat school like it’s not important.
On the Board, we need to make sure that we address that very quickly. We have to make schools a place that kids actually want to go to. We can’t keep putting them in a classroom situation and feeding them liver when they hate liver. We need to feed them things they want. And obviously I’m not speaking about food here, you know, but we need to present education to them in a way that they develop a hunger to learn.
My program was an example for most kids where they loved working with video, and they loved learning how to edit. They asked me how to do specific things in class long before I would ever show them. They were curious and motivated to learn. So that’s what we need to do.
And as a Board, what we do is we encourage more academies and we encourage general classroom activities to not just be project-based, which we already know is hugely successful, but based on reality, because you can sit there and cut little butterflies out of a piece of paper and post them on a wall. But that’s not connected to reality.
You know, when you start solving real-world problems, and then they send their solutions on to the presidents of companies, that’s where you can really light them up and really make a difference. So those are the priorities: make schools a place students want to be, give them a reason to want to show up and change the climate.
FP: What will you do to advocate for teachers if elected to the Pinellas County School Board?
Zimmermann: Well, first of all, it’s listen, but really listen. Not just conduct the climate survey. Get into the schools and really listen to specific problems that teachers are dealing with, specific hurdles that are being thrown in front of them that are preventing them from doing the thing they crave and love to do.
You know, teachers don’t teach for the money. They teach because it’s a calling. We need to find out those hurdles, and we need to remove as many of them as we can.
I would also look for every way possible that, working within the system, we can get around things and give more money, provide more money as raises — not as a bonus, which then digs us deeper into a hole the following year, but as genuine raises.
The other thing I think I would do is work with businesses. At a recent forum, I heard a lot of candidates say we need to lobby the Legislature. Well, let me tell you, having been there, you’re wasting your time lobbying the Legislature. Arizona just passed vouchers for all, and the disturbing thing is something I already knew, that they made no bones about saying vouchers for all because we are going to take down public education, we’re going to abolish it.
Now, I already knew that was the mission when I was in the Legislature. That was also the mission in Florida. So what we do is instead of lobbying the Legislature, why not lobby the companies that are very successful at lobbying the Legislature. Get them on our side and then the Legislature starts swinging the way we need them to swing.
You know, Disney obviously is not going to have any influence with the majority party right now in Tallahassee, but there are companies like Publix that have very powerful lobbying efforts with the Legislature and can steer things.
Even in industries like sugar, you look at every industry that’s successful with the majority party in the Legislature and work on lobbying them to help us correct things so that we can provide a well-trained workforce for them. This would be a win-win all around, but we’re trying to convince the wrong people. So, yeah, that’s the other thing I would do for teachers.
FP: Most Pinellas County school students are too young to vote, but if they could vote, why should they vote for you?
Zimmermann: Because I’m in it for them. And that’s the truth. And my former students all know this, and they all post on my Facebook pages supporting me because of it.
Our mission is for the students of all Pinellas County Schools. Our mission is to make them successful, give them the opportunities to make school the place that they wanted to be. So that’s why they should vote for me, it is because I’m in it for them, and they are number one. Also, the teachers are in it for them. So what I’m helping the teachers do goes back to the students.
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?
Zimmermann: Most teachers have to take the ESL training for recertification now. But I think administrators, specifically top administration, should all have to take ESL certification. They’re the ones making the rules. They should understand these strategies. And if they did, if they truly listened and understood them, then we’d be doing a lot more to help all kids using the same strategies.
I think, again, we need to give the kids a reason to want to learn. You know, I don’t care what race, what background, what poverty level a child is from. If you give them that reason, they light up.
And I’ll give you a quick example. I had a special needs kid. We had a special program, a countryside high school, and the special ed teacher said, “Listen, we have a kid with very low cognitive functioning, but he loves your live in-school Daily Show. He worships the kids that anchor when they come by our room. He’s star-struck. They’re all movie stars, you know? Is there any way he could just kind of audit your class?”
And I said that I wasn’t sure. You know, I think if he’s in my class, he’s got to meet the standards, you know. Of course, I hadn’t taken the ESL training yet, and if I had, I would have known that he didn’t. But anyway, I said sure.
And the special ed teacher said that the student wants to be in the advanced class. I thought: how can I put him in the advanced class? He doesn’t have the basics that I’ve taught in the other classes. But they said you don’t even have to grade him, we’ll keep him in our class. This is just kind of like he can be a liaison.
Under those terms, I said that sounds fair.
The next school year started, and I had completely forgotten about this. We got started, we got the show going and we did assignments. Everybody started getting up to speed, and this one kid developed as a great audio guy. He was really sharp on audio. He knew when to bring up the mics, when to bring down the mics and how to fine-tune them.
About two months go by, and I see the special ed teacher who asks how so-and-so was working out? I said, “Why do you ask?”
She had to remind me about him and let me know that he had an IQ of something like 82. I said, “I can’t believe it. He’s like, the best audio guy we have. Everybody loves him.”
Giving students opportunities, letting them do things they love, make learning about real-world scenarios — taking actions that work. That’s how you successfully address performance gaps. Pull-out tutoring to help kids who are falling behind develop necessary skills to get back to grade-level. Utilizing volunteers, mentors and other community resources to give kids the extra help they may need.
We must also continue to keep an eye on these students because kids who are hungry, who haven’t slept, who are embarrassed because of their hygiene or dirty clothes, kids who need mental health supports, et cetera are not going to perform well in the classroom if their basic needs aren’t being met.
Thank goodness we just approved a little over $4 million for mental health counselors in Pinellas County. And we’re going to get that support.
And the second part to that is I hope they create clear pathways for all staff members — not just teachers, but all staff members — to be able to refer these kids to get that help. Because right now there is no clear pathway.
You know, if I have a kid that’s being abused and clearly with sexual or physical abuse, there’s a pathway. I have a phone number. I call. I have to legally make that phone call and I can do it if I have a child that is ready to commit suicide. I have a clear pathway. You know, I can get that student into the hands of somebody that can help them right away and who doesn’t leave them alone.
But all those kids in the middle, the kids that are depressed because their girlfriend or boyfriend broke up with them, the kids that can’t function because their parents just split up. You know, all these other things that are affecting their mental health, we have no pathway. I’m hoping with this hire we’re going to get the person that will serve as the clear pathway for us to get those kids the help they need.
FP: School safety is a topic on many people’s minds, shootings and violence or bullying on campus, too. Just general disruptive behavior and even the need to keep kids safe from infectious diseases at best. These issues can be a major distraction to learning. At worst, they can be deadly. What are your thoughts on the needs and strategies to keep students safe at school?
Zimmermann: Well, first of all, in the Legislature, I filed a bill two years in a row on school safety. And at that time, it was to retrofit schools because in Pinellas County schools, we’ve got a Chief that’s really proactive and has done wonderful things.
There are still some doors in this school district, classroom doors, that cannot be locked from the inside. If you ever heard anybody talking about that problem, I’m the one that brought that thing up. And it was part of my bill.
And that’s the way I presented it: teachers had to leave the room if the announcement came that there’s an active shooter. We had to leave the classroom, stand in the hallway, in the line of sight, fiddle with our keys, lock the door, then go back in. Meanwhile, the shooter is at the end of the hallway at one of those hallways and has complete access to the students because the teacher has already been shot and is laying in the hallway.
So the bill I filed was a retrofit bill to retrofit all doorknobs, all door handles, to make them inaccessible and to take the glass in the windows and make them category five glass, which is also bulletproof. It allows penetration, but the bullet, if it gets through, it just kind of flops down. It doesn’t go anywhere.
Another idea that was not in the bill, which I just recently talked to some law enforcement about, was that I thought it would be great to cut holes in the block walls and have one-way glass. On the outside of the room, you have a locked door that can slide open so that nobody can just slide it open and look in the classroom. But the police or the principal could open it up, slide in and get the lay of the land and see where the shooter is.
This would be a simple thing that I think could enhance how quickly we can, if we were unfortunate enough to have a shooter actually in the classroom, we could quickly assess where they are so that the police would know where to penetrate.
The other thing that we have is that all of the school cameras can now be taken over by the local police. They pull in the parking lot with their big van, and they can immediately take control of all school security cameras. With this, they can steer people in exactly to where the active shooter is. Other security issues include maintaining locked, alarmed and surveilled exterior doors and guarded perimeters.
When students returned to class with the pandemic, controversy over masks and social distancing ran high. We had all of these kids that were going to be coming back in and making that work created a whole problem — social distancing was nearly impossible, and it was a total mixture of some kids wearing masks and others not.
Instead, we could have easily divided classrooms in half and said, “Those of you that want to wear masks, you will sit on that side of the room. Those of you that don’t, sit on this side of the room.” They have the choice.
If somebody says, “Well, I don’t want to wear a mask, and I want to be sitting by the door,” then, teachers could be flexible and alternate. We could be a little bit smarter on how we do it so that we’re not creating this massive division within our own community.