Stephanie Meyer: Businesswoman, teacher looks to stop the decline in Pinellas County schools

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This is the first in 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.

Stephanie Meyer is running for Pinellas County School Board District 6.

Here’s our conversation with Meyer:

Florida Politics: What are three important qualities and/or qualifications you have that will make you an effective asset on the Pinellas County School Board?

Meyer: I was born and raised here in Pinellas County, and I grew up in our public school system. My mom was also a 34-year veteran teacher with Pinellas County schools as well. So, I’ve seen both perspectives, right? My mom’s perspective as a teacher raising me and then obviously my perspective as a student here in the county going to Tyrone Elementary, Tyrone Middle, and then eventually to Dixie Hollins High.

I’ve spent 17 years in the business world in sales and marketing, managing multimillion-dollar accounts. I think the nature and just the scope of the budget in Pinellas County really requires somebody who has a strong understanding of how budgets work and how to be responsible with taxpayer dollars. But after spending 17 years in the business world, I left Procter and Gamble; I resigned so that I could become a teacher myself. And I’ve been teaching for about five years now. I teach at both Keswick Christian School and Hillsborough Community College (HCC). I have experience teaching in both private and public schools. At HCC, I teach students that are dual enrolled in high school through the collegiate program. So those are public school students. I get to really understand what all of our students are going through and what they’re dealing with and the challenges and the triumphs that they have. I think that’s really important that I have both the business background and education background. I have a master’s degree in history, and I am a Florida-certified teacher through the state. All of those things are really important. We need to have people who are currently in the classroom who understand how the decisions that we make as a board will impact teachers and students and families.

FP: Why do you want to serve on the Pinellas County School Board?

Meyer: I’m 40 years old. So, it’s been 22 years since I was a student in the Pinellas County public school system. But I’ve seen over the years a dramatic decline. And I know that the [Tampa Bay Times] has covered it and many other media outlets have covered the decline in our schools and the lack of achievement that we’re seeing. We have this large achievement gap. We have big issues with early literacy, and we keep employing the same practices, the same policies, and we’re not getting the results that we need or want.

I’m running for the school board because this is my community. I grew up here and my kids will grow up here. And I want our students to be prepared for the workforce. I want them to be prepared for college or whatever their path looks like for them. Everything begins and ends with education. We can look at: what does upward mobility look like no matter what socioeconomic situation you’ve been born into? And it starts with a sound education. That’s why I’m running. I’m running to bring my expertise in the business world to be very responsible for our taxpayers and ensure that we are. But we are fulfilling our obligation and our duty to our families and our students, preparing them for the future. But also, because I have that educational background, and I’ve seen enough now to know what works and what doesn’t work. I want to apply those skills and serve to serve our community.

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?

Meyer: I think, first and foremost, we need to start looking at these issues that we have in the county that have plagued us for a very long time. Instead of putting Band-Aids on them, we need to start addressing the root cause. So that’s really what I’m focusing on and what I want to look at. I think the first issue we need to start to resolve is the teacher shortage here in our county. And the reason that we have a teacher shortage is multifaceted. Just recently there was a poll that was done on social media, and I posted screenshots from the poll on my campaign’s Facebook page to show what teachers are saying. Teachers are saying that their greatest concern is the lack of discipline in the classroom and that not only affects the teachers’ ability to teach, but it also impacts their morale because there’s no discipline. They can’t control the students. They can’t get them ready to learn. But then it also affects the learning ability of all the other students in the classroom who are there to learn and want to learn. I think that’s one of the biggest things that we need to address right away.

When I was a student here in Pinellas County, there were clear, concise policies that were meant to deter negative behavior that impacted the learning environment for teachers and students. We need to go back to the policies that we know work such as teachers sending students on referrals to the assistant principals. Then, they’d have consequences such as in-school suspensions and out-of-school suspensions.

I think teacher pay increase is also part of this equation. But we need to do this very responsibly right now. We just heard this morning that our economy shrank again here in the United States. I think many families, not just teachers, are very concerned about the soaring cost of gas and the soaring cost of groceries, and inflation as a whole. We need to look at this from a very responsible and very transparent perspective. I want to get in there and look at the budget.

I also want to look at programs that have consistently not worked for our students and our teachers. We need to get rid of those programs that we know don’t work. I think that will free up more funds so that we can direct those funds directly into the bank accounts of our teachers. So, the teacher shortage, I think there are many reasons for it, but we need to address the root causes.

Second, I think we need to start encouraging the necessity of the parent-teacher relationship again. When I was in school, my mom and dad were very much in contact with my teachers. And there was an obvious desire by my teachers to communicate with my parents about my achievement or lack of achievement or whatever was going on at that time. And when it was time for me to enroll my first child, who is now 14, there was a very clear discouragement by the administration and teachers to collaborate with me as a parent. That was really concerning to my husband and me.

I think we need to go back to the days when we were collaborating because all the data show that students achieve better outcomes in school when they have their parents directly involved in their education. We want to have parents involved in decision-making as far as curriculum and these big decisions, because parents are the primary stakeholder in their child’s education. They must be involved. So, community involvement, parental involvement, encouraging that teacher relationship, and that district and community relationship, because these are all part of our schools. We all need to play our part in making sure that our kids get the education they need and deserve.

Thirdly, I think we need to address the mental health crisis. And I know some of the other school board candidates have said we need more mental health counselors. We need this, we need that. And we do we do need to make sure that we have the people in place in these roles to help our students who are suffering with a mental health crisis. But I think, again, it goes back to addressing the root problem. To me and my purview and the research that I’ve done, we’ve seen a dramatic, stark increase in the prevalence of mental health issues in our teens and preteens, and it directly correlates with the use of social media and the constant barrage of technology. What we need to do is return to a back-to-basics policy for curriculum, where we are, again, educating students and families about the negative impacts of social media and how the overuse of social media is a detriment to not only the learning environment by kids having their cellphones in the classroom completely distracted, but also it is encouraging the incidents of bullying.

When I was a kid, of course, there was bullying. But at the end of the day, for us, the bullying was over when we went home because you were taken out of the environment. And now we see the bullying has even just gotten more pervasive because of the use of social media. So again, I think the district has an obligation to adopt some sort of campaign where we can educate students and families on the negative impacts of social media. One that I’ve seen out in the community that I think is great is “Wait till Eighth.” It means wait until your student, your child, is in eighth grade to give them a smartphone. And I understand parents want to be able to communicate with their children. I also completely agree with that. But there are ways to responsibly give our children the tools that they need so they can communicate with their parents while also keeping them safe from the dangers of social media.

This also addresses the mental health crisis that has its root cause in the overuse of technology. We can look at the data and see a direct correlation of the use of social media and technology in young kids. It’s almost unbelievable when you look at the data, how much the rate of the incidence of mental health issues with students has increased. So, I want to get to the root cause of problems to resolve them. We have to look at what’s actually causing them instead of putting Band-Aids on them.

FP: What will you do to advocate for teachers if elected to the school board?

Meyer: As a teacher and as the daughter of a 34-year veteran teacher in Pinellas County, I can remember my mom working at Dillard’s in Tyrone Mall, a second job when I was a kid to make ends meet. So, I absolutely empathize with teachers. I know when I left Proctor and Gamble and the sales and marketing world, I took a huge pay cut. Teachers do what we do because we love what we do. We love our students. We love instilling a lifelong love of learning into our students. But we also need to be able to provide for our own families. So, I will absolutely be advocating for responsible pay raises for our teachers. I think there are ways to do this without impacting other groups by raising taxes and things like that. And I also want to help address this crisis with discipline in our schools. Our teachers cannot do their jobs when there are no deterrents for continued disruptive behavior in the classroom. We can see from the poll that I just mentioned that this was the number one issue that the teachers believe they’re facing right now.

FP: Most Pinellas County school students are too young to vote, but if they could vote, why should they vote for you?

Meyer: It’s important that students know that I’ve been in their shoes in some of the same schools that they are in now. I also think it’s important that students understand that while I had this 17-year very successful career in business, I left that to be their teacher to directly impact their future. I think that’s really important. I serve my community and take what I’ve learned in the classroom and in the business world to make this school district better for their future. I’ve seen the decline over the past couple of decades. Again, this is the community that I’ve grown up in and that my kids are growing up in. And it’s one that I love. We know that education is what promotes upward mobility, and it sustains our communities. I want to make sure that we’re doing the right things for every single student in Kilkenny.

FP: What role does, or can the school board play in addressing performance gaps among students in the classroom, particularly those who have specific needs?

Meyer: This is really important. And the board absolutely has an obligation to families, students and taxpayers to ensure that we are adopting policies that work. Many of the programs that we have tended to use over the years are continuing to fail our students. As a board, I think every single board member has an obligation to not just read the agenda items they need to actually ask the tough questions to the district. What is this program? What does this program look like? How much is it going to cost us? Show us the evidence that this is working, and if evidence can’t be provided, then let’s go back to the drawing board and find solutions that work for our students and our families.

I also think that the board needs to focus more on the parent-teacher relationship. Supporting teachers is incredibly important. Oftentimes, I think that teachers feel like they don’t have an advocate on the board, and as their peer and as someone who completely understands exactly what they’re going through on a daily basis, I think that makes me uniquely qualified to advocate for them and to make sure that we are addressing all the mission areas of the board.

FP: School safety is a topic on many people’s minds from school shootings and violence or bullying or even let me get this from school shootings and violence or bullying on campus, 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?

Meyer: This is a very complex question. I’m going to break it down into a couple of different parts. So first of all, we’re talking about disruptions and things like that, it goes back to adopting policies that are clear and concise that lead to consequences to be implemented in a way that is fair and consistent so that it deters negative behaviors. We need to have deterrents to bad behavior, and currently, we really do not. We’ve adopted policies that have pretty much allowed students to go and do whatever they want. Then, teachers are, feel that their hands are tied, and they can’t do anything about it.

Cellphones in the classroom is a huge distraction. The students need to be able to put their phones in a safe space where they can’t access them. I know there are particular schools in the district that have adopted this policy, and it works. It keeps the kids focused on what’s going on in the classroom. So that’s, number one.

Bullying, again, I think we need to address the major impacts of bullying and the catastrophic consequences that pain can produce. I am the daughter of a father who committed suicide, and I understand and identify with the horrific impacts of serious mental health crises and issues and how those things can be very much exacerbated by bullying. I never want to see a family go through what I went through with my father. It’s very important that we talk to our students about the serious impact associated with bullying and make sure that we have consequences for those things that should be met with swift action as it relates to the safety of the school.

As far as some of the incidents we’ve seen with mass shootings and the dramatic increase of mass shootings over the last several decades, I think Florida is on the right track. I would say we are on the right track. We have the benefit of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Report, which outlined critical failures that happened that allowed such a tragedy to occur. Many districts have adopted those programs. I do see schools in Pinellas County that don’t have that; they’re not hardened from the outside. They don’t have one way in and one way out. And I would like to address that right away.

We need to make sure that every single one of our schools in Pinellas County is safe from the outside with one way in and one way out, and that entry points are secured. I also am a big, strong supporter of the School Resource Officer and Guardian programs. The Guardian program in place in our elementary schools consists of armed adults who serve as additional security on campus.

Combined, these strategies are helping to keep Florida’s and Pinellas County schools safe and safer than they were, say, five or six years ago.

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Daphne Taylor Street is a St. Petersburg-based author.

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