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.
Keesha Benson is running for Pinellas County School Board District 3 At-large.
Here is our conversation with Benson:
Florida Politics: What are the three most important qualities or qualifications you have that will make you an effective asset on the Pinellas County School Board?
Keesha Benson: I think one of the things that I always talk about is the fact that I’m not coming at this as a politician. I’m a parent, an educator, a leader and a community advocate. So, I come at the position from a couple of different standpoints.
First and foremost, I’m a Pinellas County native, so my family has deep roots here. My grandfather was a business owner. My grandmother integrated Mercy Hospital when she was here. My mother was an educator for 37 years. So, my family has over 100 years in Pinellas County of being a service to the community. And I want to continue that work here.
As a parent, I have three children in the district. They are 6, 8 and 9. I’m the only one in my race that has children currently in schools, so regardless of what happens with the election, I’ll be involved in the schools for the next 8 to 10 years advocating for children.
The other piece for me is my own education. I’m a huge proponent of education. I have a Ph.D. in social work. I have two master’s degrees, a master’s in business and a master’s in social work. I’m also a graduate of the Center for Advanced Technologies here at Lakewood High School.
I truly believe that public education is the key to the next generation having their chance at an economic move forward and making sure that our children have a living wage and have opportunities in this county.
I’ve been an educator for over a decade now. I’m a college professor, and I’ve worked with faculty members, and I’ve also done faculty development. I’ve had an opportunity to attend Provost Teaching Academy at my university, and I also started the first inclusive teaching institute where we taught faculty members across the university what it was like to engage with diverse students and populations when they were uncomfortable in some of those situations.
So, I have a lot of history in education, a lot of history in the classroom, and I have a lot of experience leading efforts across Pinellas County. I’ve led school readiness initiatives, which was birth to age five outcomes, getting kids ready for kindergarten. I’ve also done system-level work as the director of Grow Smarter, which was an economic development initiative for the City of St Petersburg.
I have worked with 90 plus organizations across the city focusing on issues such as workforce development, education, culture — to get to that equity piece for the city of St Petersburg. And most recently, I served as chief learning officer where I looked at organizational shared learning and health disparities across our county. I’ve been both hands-on and a systems-level leader that’s worked across the county with community organizations, systems developers and municipalities to get work done here.
FP: Why is it that you want to serve on the Pinellas County School Board?
Benson: I always say that I’m running for School Board because I believe in healthy children, strong families and engaged communities. I’ve been a social worker and a community advocate for over 20 years, and I work with children and families at the state level across three different states and then also I’ve run local initiatives. So, I have a deep understanding of community intervention, what it means and why it matters, and I have a deep love for education.
I think that I have a credible career path with experience and expertise that will offer strong skills and perspectives to the Pinellas County School Board. I know what kids need coming into the system and the district. And then also on the back end of what that looks like as an educator, I’m really big on classroom information, student-centric learning, looking at the whole child and what those needs are.
Then, as a Pinellas County resident, I will make sure that we have educator citizens on the back end of this, you know, advocating for the needs of every child.
So I think for me, when I think about public education, it is the most powerful key to generational advancement, having the opportunity for safe, quality, equitable schools providing education right now while giving those opportunities to all children to be engaged citizens. This way we will nurture really informed citizens in our workforce. I’m in this for long-standing change for students, educators and 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?
Benson: First and foremost, resourcing. As a committed practitioner, I think about the context of the environment that we live in today. We have the fourth highest rental rates in the nation. Yet basic needs such as food and medication are difficult to access in parts of our county and community. We still don’t have a living wage for a lot of people. So, I think resourcing children, families, school personnel and educators, determining their needs in this time right now is critical.
Because if you have children who are walking through our community while exposed to violence, or children are hungry or homeless, we have to address those needs first before we even start talking about learning. Students don’t focus well when they’ve been up all night frightened, if they are hungry or if they are homeless.
So I think the school district, when I think about housing with the largest land owners and one of the largest employers in the area, the school district, when they start talking about affordable housing, they have a real responsibility to play a role in it. How can the schools incentivize our teachers and our school personnel in that sense?
The federal government is stepping away from their food program where they fed all children, and it’s more specified by need right now. Yet, hundreds of parents have said, “I can’t afford to feed my children.” So, how can the school district fill in that gap to make sure the kids have what they need?
Another important issue is equity. When I think about kindergarten readiness, third grade reading levels, high school graduation rates, the district has done some work on those areas, but we still have a long way to go. So, making sure that we have opportunities to look at where those inequities are widening those gaps and ensuring that we’re resourcing based upon the needs of students in schools.
Also, ensuring that students have a safe, equitable, quality public education available to them so that we have really strong, accessible early childhood programs on the front end of that.
The district has started to expand that with. I used to work with the Early Learning Coalition doing a lot of that work. But we also need to make sure that we have robust opportunities for students, whether that be going directly to the workforce or higher education or a trade school, that we can meet the needs of students who aren’t stepping straight into college.
We must make sure that vocational education and targeted learning such as concentrations provided through magnet programs are really strong in our educational system so that students have opportunities to have a living wage moving forward.
FP: What will you do to advocate for teachers if elected to the Pinellas County School Board?
Benson: I have been an educator, as I said, for over a decade. So, I know what it’s like to be in the classroom. And I’ve talked to a lot of teachers and school personnel over the years listening to their stories, struggles, needs and wishes.
I hear so many of them say that, one, they want clarity. They want clarity around the new law and legislation. What does it mean for them in a classroom? Really advocating for transparency, working alongside with their union and the Board to make sure that they have the guidelines and training about what’s to come and how to move forward in those spaces.
Also, I hear a lot of them talking about having a living wage and being able to afford to live here and in the cities where they work. So that goes back to that housing comment I made earlier. How can we help incentivize them in those ways, advocating for a living wage for educators and school personnel?
Right now, the Legislature has certain laws in place where veteran teachers can’t get the same amount of raises as they did in the past. Those are things that the union will push forward for, but without a change in legislation, you know, we’re not going to see anything.
So, how can we then advocate as a Board collectively to go up to the Legislature, communicate our needs clearly for Pinellas, and be specific about that to gain legislative momentum where it’s most needed?
I think when it comes to recruitment and retaining high school personnel and teachers, being mindful of what those pathways are, continuing to work with the local universities and programming to say, “How can we get teachers to stay in our community? What does it take for them to get here and what does it take to keep them?”
We need to look deeper into some of those pieces. And then also: a climate survey. I was the chief learning officer on private philanthropy, and I did a lot of work around culture and climate for our organization. So elevating those voices, asking school personnel directly, “What are your needs and how can we address them?”
Then, we need to think about if we can’t do it from a salary standpoint, how can we as a district be flexible and how can we partner with municipalities or business leaders and other organizations to get the needs of our educators met in this season and beyond?
FP: Most Pinellas County school students are too young to vote. But if they could vote, why should they vote for you?
Benson: I have three of those students. And I mean, it’s been really fun going through this process with my children and them learning more about what it means to have a voice and some say in the things that impact them.
One thing that comes up for me, there’s a quote by Carter G. Woodson that says, “The mere imparting of information is not education. Above all things, the effort must result in making a person think and do for themselves.”
As an educator, it’s so important that students know that I want them to be critical thinkers. I want to empower them. I want them to have real-world opportunities and application of the material that they’re learning so they can take that and really go out to change the world with it.
I’m someone that believes in fighting for the rights of all students and advocating for that. And I say that over and over on my platform — I stand for all students. So having opportunities for them to have a safe space where they can bring their fullness of themselves to the classroom and know that they will be supported and loved in this work.
I think also speaking to the students’ specific gifts and talents is important. This means not having a one size fits all programming and curricula.
I’m someone that really believes in having different educational paths with robust opportunities, which Pinellas County does, that can speak to the different talents of students. Here, students can go where they want to go, have a strong, quality education and whatever path they choose, they have access to that path in a way that they feel supported.
I want to make sure that we’re meeting the needs of the whole child in the school system.
The college I went to had a motto that was “excellence with caring.” I think about that in this context as thinking about children beyond the classroom, and what are their needs and how are they resourced? How are we supporting them? How are we supporting the families to make sure that they have what they need to support quality education for their children?
For me as a parent, I know that I’m empathetic to the needs of students and what they’re going through in a season of their lives as they grow. I would be there advocating for them to give them the very best for their growth and future. I believe in universal course design and pedagogy and really deepening in that work.
For me, Pinellas County was the foundation of my education. And I say that the woman that I am is because of what I learned here. I had the opportunity to be the Mayor of Enterprise Village. You know, I was on the safety patrol. I was the president of Future Business Leaders of America. I was deeply involved in the multicultural club.
So, having students experience those opportunities in the educational realm while seeing what they’ve become because of that is inspiring. And I’m someone that will advocate for those opportunities for them.
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?
Benson: A story that I tell people often is when I was in high school, I took the PSAT every single year in high school because I was in a magnet, I was in the CAP program. And by the time I got to my senior year, I already had early admission to every college I wanted to go to.
But I had classmates at the end of my senior year close to graduation that still hadn’t even started to think about what their future looked like. I always say to people, it’s not because I was smarter, it’s because I had access, and I had help. I was guided along the way.
Ensuring that we have those kinds of opportunities for students across our county, that we have people that are pouring into the students and telling them, as I do, the different pathways and opportunities available so that they can think about what their future looks like and also share with their parents.
For me, improving inequities across our district is a large concern of mine. I know that I’ll be successful when we’re able to involve more parents and students and school personnel and make sure that they have a voice in what’s important to them.
Being able to have engagement opportunities where students share with us what they’re going through and where they’re experiencing those inequities, especially those places in the county that have been historically disinvested in, is critical to paving a path to more equity.
Also, working towards resource equity is vital. When our district went back to a neighborhood school model, they were told that if you do this, you will have to resource differently and think about what equity means and where the needs are in a district. They did some of that work, but not as much as they could have and likely should have.
And that’s why we are dealing with the inequity we have right now today across the county. So, the first stage in developing greater equity involves going back to look at where are the needs. It requires assessing the needs depending on the students.
It can be a gifted learner student, could be an ESL student, students with literacy or math deficiencies, students who are differently learning or who are experiencing delays. It could be any of those opportunities, but where are those needs and which resources are needed there, specifically?
If it’s a first-time educator, what kind of mentorship opportunities are there for them so that we’re pouring back into those resources in an equitable sense?
I know that the district has a Bridging the Gap plan. This includes six different metrics. They show up quarterly, and they’ve done a good job on some of those areas, but we still have a long way to go. So being mindful of what that looks like and making sure that the community is really involved in having that transparent information, while bringing them into the conversation.
We must bring back community partnerships and not just at the individual school level with a program here or there, but by bringing them down from a systems level where the district can allocate those resources across the board so that we use data to ensure the schools are getting their needs met through these partnerships and programs.
So really, this requires the involvement of community and business leaders and municipalities engaged in these conversations as well because I think once we have buy-in from the community as a whole to invest back in these schools, we’ll have an opportunity for every child to thrive.
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?
Benson: As a parent, I think about this often. It’s often on my heart. And then just as a community member, one, to make sure that our school personnel and our students are safe in these environments is our number one priority. As your question illustrates, school safety is a multifaceted area. I think about it from a couple of different standpoints.
I think about it from disease mitigation. When I was the chief learning officer, we used to track data around COVID-19 numbers, and we had a dashboard providing a clear picture of what those numbers look like and what they represent.
Oftentimes, we would see that the district numbers were lagging behind. Even as a parent, there are certain instances where things will happen to a school, and that communication just wasn’t clear. So, making sure that we have really clear and transparent dashboards around any disease indication and standpoint so that people know what the information is. How do we continue to communicate that out to parents or school personnel?
We also must make sure that school personnel have adequate sick leave responsive to these indicators. Because I don’t want someone to feel that they have to choose between resting to heal from their illness and coming in to work because they don’t have the leave available to stay home.
So, preparing that communication with a clear plan, making sure we have up-to-date, accurate dashboards and that school personnel have adequate sick leave around that will go a long way towards mitigating disease risks.
From a safety standpoint regarding active shootings, I know the district has a plan already in place that they review every year or so. We must make sure that we still have a safety assessment and plan in place for each school.
I was recently endorsed by the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association, and in speaking with them they made the comment that at times the School Resource Officers are pulled into situations in the classroom that aren’t safety concerns. There may just be discipline concerns. So being clear about what the delineation of efforts are so that they can concentrate on safety in schools is important. At the same time, teachers and administration can concentrate on other things that they need to address.
Different safety drills are still needed right now for students, but are they age-appropriate? Are they trauma-informed? Students are going through safety protocols, but are we making sure those things are in place so they’re not retraumatized by preparing for these active shooter drills? Are we making sure the parents are aware of the role they can play to help deter potential school safety problems before they escalate? If they see something, say something.
Having adequate mental health services, making sure the students feel really supported can prevent problems from escalating. I spoke to a social worker recently, and she said that she was spread across three schools, and she was actually leaving the district.
Students, parents, teachers and administrators each need a clear pathway to access resources such as mental health and counseling resources for these programs to be effective. It’s not enough to just have them in place if there are difficult barriers to navigate to access them. What is a student, parent, teacher or administrator supposed to do in the event of an immediate mental health crisis that doesn’t fit Baker Act criteria if the one mental health counselor assigned to a school is currently scheduled at another school in the district?
Safety is also an environmental justice issue. Recently, we heard in the news about a local elementary school that has been experiencing a terrible odor around their schools. The smell has been so bad at points where they’ve had to pull students off the playground. No community should have to experience environmental justice issues and especially children who have their education disrupted by such things.
These issues should be mitigated around the communities and also in the classroom proactively as a priority.
Everyone, especially students, should have opportunities to be heard, to be invited to speak up and to say, “Hey, this is not right.” And all of us need those clear pathways mapped out for us to get children’s needs met. Right now, the current legislation is making sure that students are even aware of what that means for them and that they have these support systems for the school.
One final comment I’d like to make, in the School Board race, I have raised the most money over all four School Board races, and I know that money isn’t everything, but I think it really just shows the commitment of people to this race.
I’m honored to have been endorsed by the Tampa Bay Times, Pinellas Realtor Organization, Amplify Clearwater, Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association, Pinellas Parents Advocating for Public Schools, SEIU Florida, Florida National Organization for Women PAC, Equality Florida Action PAC, Public Education Caucus of Florida, Ruth’s List Florida, Families Deserve Inclusive Schools, Betty Castor (Former President USF/ Former Commissioner of Education), Mayor Ken Welch (City of St. Petersburg), and over 25 state and local elected officials and community leaders.
I think people are really, really excited about this time to serve our children and about this campaign. People really want to invest in education. They want to serve all children. And to have that opportunity to give my gifts and talent to this season for the next generation would be pretty awesome.