Brian Martin wants to bring businessman’s POV to Pinellas School Board

BRIAN MARTIN ART
'It is important to have a panel of Board members with diverse backgrounds who can offer different viewpoints.'

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.

Brian Martin is running for Pinellas County School Board District 6.

Here is our conversation with Martin:

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

Brian Martin: I’m a native Floridian. I grew up just across the bridge in Bradenton where I graduated from high school, and I have a degree in chemical engineering from the University of South Florida.

I spent the last 15 years working on multimillion-dollar projects in power plants, refineries and other industrial facilities. I have worked both with and for numerous Fortune 500 companies with detailed product specifications. I design and select process equipment, and I’ve managed full-scale projects. I bring to the School Board a team problem-solving mindset.

I’m also running as the father of four children currently enrolled in Pinellas County public schools. I have a 12-year-old daughter at Thurgood Marshall Middle School, plus a 10-year-old son, a 6-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter enrolled at Shore Acres Elementary.

I think it’s important that we have Board members that are actively invested in public education. And while I think it’s important that we have teachers on the School Board, I don’t think all seven members of the Board need school teaching experience. If elected, I would be the only Board member who is a father with kids enrolled in Pinellas County Schools.

It is important to have a panel of Board members with diverse backgrounds who can offer different viewpoints. That’s really where I bring a lot of value. I’m a small business owner, I have a lot of project management experience. I’m used to working with a collaborative team, and that’s what this Board is. We’re not a one-person show. We’re working on a collaborative team with a lot of different perspectives.

Most of the district’s issues are bipartisan issues, and I think there’s a lot of politics injected into public education right now that doesn’t serve the students. Republicans, Democrats, independents alike, all demonstrate through polling that 85% of each of these groups believe in strong public education. And I think it’s important that we have more members with that unified outlook.

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

Martin: I’m running for School Board because I have four kids in the district, and I want my kids to have the best possible opportunities for education. And not only my kids; I want the entire community to experience the best education that we can provide.

Education is the great equalizer. I believe in public education, in the good it does for the whole community. We should have a strong public education system that prepares our students not just for college, but for life and the workforce and so that they can navigate the world around them with confidence and knowledge.

Not every student is going to go on to become a doctor or a lawyer, and that’s great. We should be encouraging kids to be curious about many occupations and fields of study. We need to make sure that our public education system gives all students the tools they need to be successful in life, whether they spend their day working on biotech programs or fixing the plumbing in a factory or whatever else they choose to do.

We also can’t forget that one of the most important roles of the Board members is managing a $1.6 billion budget. I’m running because I have experience engineering projects and in business management, and the qualities I have to be successful in those areas will make me a great asset on the School Board.

We had educators on the Board now, and that’s very important but we also need Board members with expertise overseeing budget allocations. It’s a way to make sure we’re making the most of the resources we have. I want to advocate for our students and families, and one way to do that is to be a great steward of finances, making sure dollars are spent where there’s the greatest positive impact.

As a parent in this district, I have the most at stake. And I want to make sure that our students and our parents know that they have someone fighting for their values because I’m invested in the system as well.

I want to make sure that our teachers and staff have the resources they need to be successful when we’ve got a critical shortage in staffing teachers and school personnel staffing overall right now. I want to make sure that kids just don’t show up to empty buildings or our classrooms get packed to the point where education is not as impactful because we just don’t have the number of teachers we need.

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?

Martin: So the number one issue, besides safety, which we’re going to discuss in-depth in another question, is the teaching shortage.

I touched on a second ago, but just to emphasize the point: we’re facing a critical shortage, according to the Pinellas County School Job Board right now. I checked it 20 minutes ago. School starts in less than two weeks, and we’re short 193 certified instructional positions. We’re short 175 non-instructional support staff positions. And then, as of the School Board workshop on July 19, we were short 65 bus drivers.

I mean, compared to the shortages last year, we were only short about 100 teachers and support staff this time last year. Now that number is close to 400. We’re looking at starting the school year with thousands of kids in overpacked classrooms with long-term substitutes, at best. This doesn’t look good.

And this is an issue that touches close to home to me. Last year, my fourth-grade son lost both his English and math teachers because they left the profession.

Teaching is not currently valued by a lot of people, and that’s demonstrated in salaries, lack of support and resources, workload and the overall climate and morale in the education system. Teachers are leaving the field because of it.

I also faced issues with my oldest daughter and her bus to middle school. The bus was habitually 30 to 60 minutes late at the beginning of the year. So, we thought, okay, you know, they’re getting used to the new school year. Well, weeks later, months later, they still had problems with the schedule. They got a little bit better, and the bus was then 20 to 30 minutes late on average. She missed so much of her first class that it was becoming a real problem. We ended up just driving her to school most of the time.

How do we fix that? That is a real question that must be addressed — many parents can’t coordinate their schedules to drive their kids to school every morning. We need to be honest and clear about what is causing the shortage to fix it.

The teacher and staff shortage is a result of just years of neglect, and we have a lot of damage done to first and foremost our teachers along with other staff members. They need to feel valued and respected. Florida is the number four economy in the United States, and yet education spending per student ranks in the bottom five, nationally.

As a result of this, the Florida teacher salaries are in the bottom seven, nationally, and that’s after the Legislature just approved an $800 million bump to teacher pay. That’s great. I’m not complaining about that. That’s fantastic. But it’s merely a first step. That moved us from the bottom five nationally in teacher pay to the bottom seven.

Plus, the majority of that went to new teacher salaries. So now we have five-, seven-, 12-year veteran teachers making similar money to newly certified teachers. This is another thing that makes our veteran teachers feel a huge lack of respect and value. They’ve been in the profession for many years and the new guy on the block is making the same money as them. They don’t feel valued.

I’m pragmatic, and I realize there’s only so much the Board can do in terms of teacher pay. I mean, the budget is huge, but we also have spending allotments driven by the Legislature, a huge number of students and a huge number of teachers. We can’t just throw money at teachers even though I wish it was that simple. What we can do is to take a holistic review of the budget and see where we can best allocate funds to add more value where it belongs.

Beyond that, we can advocate to our local legislators to restore funding. As I mentioned, 85% of Democrats, Republicans and independents alike believe in a strong public education system. I think we just need our legislators to put their money where their mouth is and help out there.

The second issue I’ll mention here although we’ll discuss it further is safety. As a father of four kids in public schools, I’m keenly aware of safety issues. After incidents like what happened at Robb Elementary, I feel like sometimes it could be the last time I ever see my kid. Every time I drop them at school, it’s scary.

We need to continue to examine and enhance safety programs that we have within Pinellas County schools, which are fairly decent. We have programs related with the Sandy Hook Promise. The teachers and students need to be more inclusive and reduce social isolation. The vast majority of these shooting incidents involve current or former students who feel disgruntled. They’re generally isolated socially. So, teach the kids to be more inclusive and ensure teachers focus on encouraging more inclusivity in school. This is a great way to stop that cycle before it begins.

We must also train our teachers and staff on becoming trusted adults so that our kids feel more comfortable going to them with issues. These are adults that students view as reliable and caring people who will listen and respond appropriately to student concerns, warning signs and threats. Just to have a coordinated team of adults that the students can go to, confide in and trust. To have adults in their lives who don’t overreact but have appropriate reactions to sometimes very difficult issues.

And then the schools need an honest reporting system — every school in the county needs a site-based team to address incoming tips. How it works now is that they work with local police departments. This program led to over 2,400 tips in 2021. Many of those tips were suicide related. We’ve had some big success in that program, making sure violence and self-harm either didn’t happen or didn’t escalate.

So where can the School Board improve this? We should continue those programs with increased emphasis and potentially include additional community services as appropriate such as mental health interventions or referrals to other resources.

But also in the 2021-22 school year, the counselor ratio was 434 students to one counselor. The social work ratio was 781 to one and the psychologist ratio was 1,089 to one. They’re significantly below standards. I know that the Board just approved a tremendous increase to our mental health staff, and I think that’s a great step. I want to make sure that goes through.

The third priority I’d like to mention is getting more parents involved in the schools as much as they can. You know, I’m running as the father of kids in school. I volunteer at my kids’ classes. Before I ran for election, I volunteered in other schools. I volunteered at different levels. I wanted to get experience to understand what teachers are facing.

Parental involvement is the number one factor in early student success. But parents aren’t getting face time in elementary school when they are dropping the kids off anymore with the new safety protocols serving as a barrier.

I fully support the new safety protocols — they are important. I think it’s equally important that we carve out time in our teachers’ schedules to have time for them to engage with families. This would also give opportunities to get more parents in classrooms to help out benefitting all students and the teachers.

In volunteering, I’ve sat down with multiple kids in my kids’ classes and just help them with things like reading or math. You know, I’ve had three kids go through up to the seventh grade now. I’ve done a lot of reading, math and homework with my kids. I’m pretty good at seeing where the shortfalls are and so are a lot of other parents.

We can take guidance from the teachers, too, as we’re volunteering in their classrooms to take their lead in the support they need the most with the students. It’s a way to give teachers more resources.

This is also an excellent way to help address the literacy gaps showing up in our classrooms. If students can’t read to grade level, they are going to fall behind in everything because conventional learning requires reading — even reading math textbooks, history, science. … If these students are falling behind by the third grade as we’re seeing right now, they are only going to fall farther behind if they advance into higher grades unless the literacy deficiency is addressed.

Teachers don’t have the capacity to fulfill this need effectively in overcrowded classrooms during a severe teacher shortage with students operating at grade level who are getting bored in the same class with students below grade level who are struggling. Volunteers could make all the difference in getting students up to speed and also reducing disruptive behavior from frustrated students.

FP: What will you do to advocate for teachers if elected to Pinellas County School Board?

Martin: Teachers are struggling right now. They don’t feel valued or respected. A sizable portion of our teachers are feeling pressure of political attacks going on right now, too.

The pandemic brought about an intensified focus on education in polarized political contexts, and it’s not really helping teachers out. We have small but very vocal outside groups stalking teachers on the Internet, accusing them of indoctrination. And these are people who ultimately aren’t getting paid their fair value but are taking on attacks while they’re just trying to do their jobs.

Imagine having a job where you get paid significantly less than what you’re worth and then having outside groups accusing you of “indoctrinating children.” That’s not why teachers got in the profession.

You know, teachers got in the profession because they love kids. They love teaching, and they want to have an impact on the community. Some are willing to sacrifice salary for that. And that’s that’s great, but at some point the job just doesn’t feel like it’s worth the stress anymore, so some teachers leave the profession for higher salaries and less stress even though they love teaching.

I’m committed to supporting the School Board because I believe that teachers are a vital part of our community. One candidate in our race didn’t even meet with the Classroom Teachers Association and Educational Support Professionals. I mean, how can you claim to advocate for teachers when you don’t respect the bargaining arm of our teachers enough to even speak with them?

I’ve had pragmatic discussions with teachers and support professional unions. I believe our teachers are definitely underpaid, and I’ll do everything in my power to help them in that area. But we have budget constraints. Any significant movement in teacher salaries will need backing from our Legislature. Where the Board can most impact the teaching staff is to advocate for respect and trust for the profession and in the classrooms.

I’ve heard stories of teachers removing full classroom libraries out of fear of new legislation. You know, we need to be transparent with our teachers and give them guidance that they are desperately seeking. I know the Board is working on that, but it’s very slow.

The new laws aren’t really as detrimental as some of our media outlets have led us to believe. Our teachers are scared. The new Superintendent, Kevin Hendricks, has an initiative to improve the culture and climate in our schools. And I think that focus is a really great first step to helping teachers. First, let’s treat them with respect and listen to what they’re saying. That’s how we start advocating for teachers.

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

Martin: I’m truly in this to improve public education. I want every student not only to succeed, but I want them to show up for class with their needs, met as happy and engaged students, building for themselves a brighter future with the full support and resources of the education system and the community.

I want qualified teaching professionals showing up in our classrooms excited to be there, and not worrying about their bills or seeking a career change just so they can make ends meet. Teachers who aren’t stressed out in every area of their lives benefit students.

Public education is supposed to be a bipartisan effort to improve the lives of our students and in turn, our future community. I will make the best decisions for our students, families, teachers and staff every single time, regardless of outside pressures.

I’m not influenced by any outside political party or politicians. I’m not running as a springboard to a political future. I’m running because I believe a strong, healthy, supportive public education system is a vital part of our future community and it’s what our students deserve.

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?

Martin: The mission statement of our Board includes a goal of 100% student success. I believe it’s our responsibility to make sure that we’re educating all students in our community.

Five years ago, the district started a six-part Bridging the Gap plan. Over the last five years, the graduation rate of Black and Brown students was only 65%, and it has increased today to about 86%. It’s a tremendous success. We’ve moved the gap down from 18% to under seven. However, the reality exists that we’re simply pushing students through graduation versus ensuring that these students are truly successful in performance standards.

The gap in our ILA and math scores five years ago was around 30%, and today it remains around 30%. You know, it’s not just about throwing money at a problem. It requires accurately identifying resources these schools and students need to achieve. It really does take the experience to quickly identify students that are just starting to fall behind to catch them right away before the problem grows for them.

So, since we’re going to be starting a lot of new teachers due to our current enormous teacher shortage, it’s going to take them some time to learn to identify the students that are just barely starting to fall behind and try to get them the help they need. Whereas, you know, veteran teachers are a lot more keen on picking up the signs once there’s a problem. It’s easier for them to identify the signs faster. If the deficiencies aren’t noticed and addressed quickly, then it also becomes harder to fix.

We need to make sure that we have experienced staff that can identify and target students who need extra resources and get them the help they need as rapidly as possible.

For students with specific needs, you know, there is a 2014 ruling that states if the school does not have the services required for a student in need, the school is obligated to find services. This is about our exceptional student education. We’re required by law to provide services to these students in the least restrictive environment possible.

And parents have an equal right in determining such restrictions, which means that the school doesn’t necessarily need to identify these students. With the vast majority of our students, the parents are asking for help before the students even show up at school.

I want to run to advocate for our parents and students. I want to make sure that the Board and the district and the school are held accountable for providing services and to make sure that parents have their say in the decision-making process.

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 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?

Martin: I talked a lot about school safety earlier. I think Pinellas County really does have great programs, but there are areas that we can certainly improve. I think that in terms of the infectious disease protocols, I know in 2020, we probably did a little too much. In 2021, we probably did too little. And now coming into the start of 2022, I don’t believe there’s any COVID protocols in Pinellas County, currently.

I just think we should make sure that we have hand sanitizer, distancing where we can and just making sure teachers have sick leave because we’re going to see instances again in terms of working through illnesses, which spreads disease.

I’ve seen our community grow over the past 30 years from when it was almost a small town. Now it’s practically a bustling metropolis. There’s a lot going on. Things are changing rapidly, and we need to make sure that our schools are meeting the needs of our students in the community where they live.

Not every kid’s going to go on to become a doctor or a lawyer. We need to make sure that Pinellas Park has a large manufacturing community to make sure that the biotech programs in that area focus on the needs of that area, and we need to make sure that welding programs and electrical programs and things like that are strong for students to eventually fill the needs of the industries we have. The coastal cities have a lot of tourism and fishing, so maybe we can have big tech programs focused on getting those students ready for the industry in that specific area.

We have far more potential than limitations if we just focus on identifying needs and priorities and matching them with appropriate resources.

Daphne Taylor Street



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