School Board races are technically nonpartisan, but that’s hard to tell from this year’s elections.
Schools have found themselves on the front line of the so-called culture war, as everything from teaching about race and U.S. history to book bans and questions about gender and sexuality ignite school boards nationwide. The attention began during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it shows no sign of abating.
Brevard County is no exception, with three of the board’s five seats up for election — one with no incumbent. These races have attracted attention from the left and the right, and there’s a chance the board that emerges post-election could look very different ideologically than the one in place now.
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The Brevard County chapter of Moms for Liberty has extensively promoted conservative candidates on social media, while rival group Families for Safe Schools has urged voters to support two candidates from its own ranks and current Brevard School Board Chair Misty Belford.
Moms for Liberty is working hard to unseat Belford, whom they blame, along with School Board member Jennifer Jenkins, for the district’s mask policies during the worse days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jenkins is not up for election, but the District 2 seat held by School Board member Cheryl McDougall is, and McDougall regularly voted in a bloc with Jenkins and Belford.
Even Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis got involved, saying the races are a priority for Republicans. He made one endorsement in Brevard.
The candidates disagree on some key points — such as whether critical race theory has infiltrated school curricula, how the district should handle the needs of LGBTQ students and whether the School Board has lost trust from the community.
The candidates also disagree on whether teachers should be armed. Belford said during a FLORIDA TODAY forum that teachers did not need that additional burden, while District 2 candidate Shawn Overdorf said any teacher with proper training absolutely should bring guns.
Beyond that, most share beliefs that the district must increase teacher and staff pay, resolve learning gaps created by COVID-19, and improve offerings for career and technical education.
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Two of the races contested this year will be decided in Aug. 23 primaries because only two candidate are running in each of them. But in the four-candidate District 2 election, if no candidate secures more than 50% of the vote, a runoff election will be held during the Nov. 8 general election.
All voters — regardless of political party affiliation — can vote in these nonpartisan elections, but only for the race in the district they live in.
Brevard School Board members have four-year terms, and have a salary of $44,609 a year. There are five School Board members, but School Board Members Jenkins in District 3 and Matt Susin in District 4 are not up for reelection this year.
Belford is the board’s longest-serving member, being first elected in 2014, and served as chair for four years. An independent who is not a member of any political party, Belford faces a challenge from the right by Megan Wright, a business owner and mother who says she wants to bring trust and accountability back to the board.
“I got to this point in frustration in 2020 that a lot of parents were at, where we felt this frustration of not being heard or not being pleased with the decisions the board was making,” Wright said during a June 27 candidate forum. “I came to the realization that I’m either going to find the problem or I’m going to work to solve the problem.”
Wright was endorsed by DeSantis in June. She also is endorsed by Moms for Liberty, a conservative parent group founded in Brevard and Indian River counties that has since spread across the country.
Wright filed for bankruptcy in 2010, but has not replied to a request for comment about the circumstances behind that action. She did not participate in a FLORIDA TODAY candidate forum for District 1.
Belford has fielded criticism from conservatives for supporting the district’s mask mandate in fall 2021.
She also has voted in favor of policies allowing transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms fitting their gender identities. Belford said those policies are required by federal nondiscrimination policies and are necessary to allow Brevard Public Schools to continue receiving federal funding. But parents at School Board meetings have said they endanger girls and place the rights of transgender student above those of others.
Outside of her work on the board, Belford is a swim instructor and the director of a nonprofit aimed at preventing childhood drownings. She served as an adjunct professor for Rollins College, but gave up that role to focus on the School Board.
Belford said in an interview that teacher recruitment, school safety, and career and technical education are top of her mind as she runs for her next term. She does not believe hot-button topics such as critical race theory and LGBTQ issues dominate the minds of voters and parents as much as some might assume based on headlines. Critical race theory is an academic concept examining the intercept of race, society and law.
Belford said she does not regret her decision to vote in favor of a mask mandate because she believes she was making the best decision with the information she had at the time, and that her role as an elected official is to gather facts and make unbiased decisions.
“I think, as an elected official, you have to have thick skin. You have to be able to live with the choices that you make,” Belford said at a FLORIDA TODAY forum. “And that really is my guiding principle, if you will. At the end of the day, I have to be able to lay my head on the pillow, and know in my heart that I did the best that I could for our students.”
Wright has cast herself as a pro-parent candidate.
“Every time you go to a School Board meeting, you get this feeling that it’s like you’re there to speak and get out of the room. Decisions are already made. You don’t get a say in what’s happening,” Wright said in a video message posted to YouTube. “The parents are the ones that are responsible for raising these children, so I just really want to be a parent’s advocate that’s on the board.”
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Belford said DeSantis’ endorsement of Wright did not come as a surprise because the governor disagreed with Belford’s vote in favor of mask mandates last fall.
“My understanding is the governor’s endorsement also comes with a requirement to commit to uphold the governor’s agenda, and I just cannot commit to uphold any individual’s agenda,” Belford said.
Campaign financing: Candidates depend on donations from their supporters to fund their campaigns, as they typically buy such things as campaign signs, campaign shirts and hats, mailers, flyers, media advertising, website and social media expenses, voter list databases and office supplies. Reports of contributions and spending are through July 22, as contained in the latest-available reports. It’s possible that, at least for some candidates, much of the spending will occur in the last few weeks of the campaign.
Belford has raised $38,120 in cash contributions (including $139 of her own money) and $899 in in-kind contributions, and has spent $8,065. Among Belford’s contributors are former Brevard Schools Superintendent Desmond Blackburn, District 2 School Board Member Cheryl McDougall, District 4 School Board candidate Kim Hough, former District 5 School Board Member Andy Ziegler, Cocoa Mayor Mike Blake, former Brevard County Commissioner Robin Fisher, longtime lobbyist Guy Spearman, and hotel owners Bob Baugher and Tom Hermansen. Belford’s donors also include businesses owned by Titusville Vice Mayor Robert Jordan Jr., former Brevard County Commissioner Jim Barfield and attorney/lobbyist Kendall Moore; as well as contributions from The Viera Co. and two political committees, including the Brevard Democratic Executive Committee.
Wright has raised $39,100 in cash contributions (including $20,050 of her own money) and $1,000 in in-kind contributions, and has spent $20,800. Among Wright’s contributors are Florida State Sen. Tom Wright, Public Defender Blaise Trettis, Brevard County Commissioner Rita Pritchett, Satellite Beach City Council Member Mindy Gibson and former District 3 School Board Member Amy Kneessy. Wright’s donors also include the business owned by Canaveral Port Authority Commissioner Micah Loyd, and four political committees, including Moms for Liberty Florida and Realtors PAC.
Where is District 1: District 1 is a north Brevard district that includes these high schools and junior/senior high schools: Astronaut, Space Coast and Titusville.
Four candidates are vying for the seat of current School Board Member Cheryl McDougall, who is not seeking reelection.
The race’s three conservatives have faced a battle for nominations:
Lewis, the first to announce plans to run, earned the support of Moms for Liberty founder Tina Descovich and Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey.
Gene Trent, a teacher, has the backing of the Brevard Republicans and the Brevard branch of Moms for Liberty.
Shawn Overdorf, a retired school resource officer and Brevard newcomer, said he was offered jobs by Ivey and others to drop out of the race, which he refused to do.
On the other side, Erin Dunne is a teacher who has earned the support of the Brevard Democrats.
Lewis, owner of two restaurants in Merritt Island, was the first candidate to announce plans to run in District 2. She earned the support of Ivey, former Florida House of Representatives Speaker Steve Crisafulli and former Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos.
Lewis has billed herself as a pro-parent conservative candidate who will protect the financial future of the district. She is the mother of a child with developmental delays.
“From struggling to form sounds to now having clear communication, I had to move mountains to get him the services he needed to thrive educationally,” Lewis writes on her website. “No family should have to go through such Herculean efforts to see their child succeed.”
Lewis faced criticism from Dunne after public records showed Lewis worked for the district as a substitute for less than a year before being terminated for not volunteering for the required hours.
Lewis also has faced questions about her financial qualifications after disclosing at a Republican forum that she underwent foreclosures in 2010.
Lewis’ campaign manager, Marie Rogerson, said the foreclosure was due to the housing market crash in 2008. Rogerson said Lewis was working in real estate at the time, and her condominium investment failed.
Trent, a math teacher endorsed by the Brevard chapter of Moms for Liberty, the Space Coast Association of Realtors and the Brevard Republican Executive Committee, also describes himself as a supporter of parental rights.
He has criticized concepts such as critical race theory appearing in school curriculums, and said he had the experience to financially manage the district.
“I’ve been teaching your children for the last 20 years,” Trent said. “Before that, I had the opportunity to be in the financial-services business. I’ve had the opportunity to own a small business in the restaurant business, so I know about budgets.”
Trent filed for bankruptcy in 2000, a record that he said stemmed from unreturned equipment. In 1999, Trent was charged with battery. The charges were dropped. Trent said he was protecting his wife from a bartender’s inappropriate touching.
Overdorf is a combat veteran and served as a school resource officer for 13 years. He moved to Brevard County in 2021, and has three daughters.
Overdorf’s main campaign promise has been to tackle school safety and prepare schools for the possibility of a school shooting. Overdorf said he has seen for himself that schools in the county are not safe enough.
“They’re soft targets,” Overdorf said at a June 27 public forum. “I plan on assessing every single school in this county and bringing them up above standard. They’re way below standard.”
Overdorf told FLORIDA TODAY that Ivey and unnamed “organizations” offered him jobs to drop out of the race. Ivey allegedly offered him a job working in the County Commission office of former Florida Rep. Tom Goodson, should Goodson win his County Commission District 2 election this year. Goodson has said he was not aware of any offer, and Ivey has refused to comment. Overdorf said he believed Ivey was “looking out for him.”
“These other organizations and the sheriff, they’ve offered me different jobs, different political positions. That’s not what I want. I’m not a politician. I’m here to protect the children,” Overdorf said.
The sole Democrat running for District 2, Dunne, served as a teacher for 13 years. Dunne is endorsed by Families for Safe Schools, gun safety group Everytown and Equality Florida, an LGBTQ political advocacy group. Families for Safe Schools is an organization that developed during the pandemic to advocate for COVID-19 restrictions, gun safety, LGBTQ student rights and more.
Dunne was Teacher of the Year at Atlantis Elementary in 2014.
“We need to make sure that our focus is on the real issues that our students are facing day to day, and the real issues our teachers are dealing with,” Dunne said. “Are there some cultural war issues that pertain to our schools? Absolutely, but there are also many that are full of misinformation.”
Campaign financing: Dunne has raised $19,304 in cash contributions (including $100 of her own money) and $1,044 in in-kind contributions (including $58 of her own money), and has spent $5,997. Her 290 cash contributions are the most of any School Board candidate this year. Among Dunne’s contributors are McDougall and Brevard Democratic Party State Committeeman Sanjay Patel. She has received contributions from three political committees, including the Brevard Democratic Executive Committee and Ruth’s List, which supports Democratic pro-choice women candidates.
Lewis has raised $42,661 in cash contributions (including $50 of her own money) and $3,333 in in-kind contributions (including $580 of her own money), and has spent $15,504. Among Lewis’ contributors are Haridopolos, Loyd, Moms for Liberty co-founder and former District 3 Brevard School Board Member Tina Descovich, District 2 Brevard County Commission candidate Joseph Cholewa, Hermansen, Spearman, and the law office of Canaveral Port Authority Commissioner and Florida House of Representatives candidate Robyn Hattaway. Two political committees also contributed to Lewis’ campaign.
Overdorf has raised $11,890 in cash contributions (including $10,000 of his own money) and $135 in in-kind contributions, and has spent $7,759. His in-kind contributions are from Melbourne Mayor Paul Alfrey and West Melbourne City Councilman John Dittmore, Overdorf’s cousin.
Trent has raised $15,495 in cash contributions (including $25 of his own money) and $1,577 in in-kind contributions, and has spent $12,193. His contributors include Cocoa Beach City Commissioner Karalyn Woulas, Cholewa, the Space Coast Republican Club and a business affiliated with former Florida Rep. and former Canaveral Port Authority Commissioner Tom Goodson, who now is a candidate for Brevard County Commission in District 2. He also received an contribution from Realtors PAC.
Where is District 2: District 2 is a central Brevard district that includes these high schools and junior/senior high schools: Cocoa, Cocoa Beach, Edgewood and Merritt Island.
Current School Board Member Katye Campbell faces a challenge from the left from Kim Hough.
Hough is the vice president of Families for Safe Schools. She said her main priority as School Board member would be the safety of students.
“That includes the full gamut of physical safety, mental health safety, the safety of our teachers and staff, the safety of our buildings,” Hough said in a forum hosted by FLORIDA TODAY and the Space Coast League of Women Voters. “So our children need to have these types of environments and feel safe and feel ready to learn every day, and our teachers need that so that they are teaching students that are ready to learn.”
Campbell — one of two Republicans currently on the board, along with District 4 School Board Member Matt Susin, who is not up for reelection this year — is running for her second term. She voted against mask mandates in schools last fall, and has encouraged the board to carefully review library materials objected to by parent groups.
Campbell said she would focus on tackling the COVID-19 learning gap and recruiting staff to meet demand.
“Over the last couple of years during the pandemic, our students have really suffered with the pandemic,” Campbell said. “We’ve got a lot of challenges, with getting them not just caught up, but pushed ahead when it comes to academics.”
At a February School Board meeting, Campbell voted against an update to the district’s diversity policy that detailed the process by which the district would respond to discrimination and harassment complaints. She said she could not vote in favor of the update because she would have voted against a 2016 update to the policy before she joined the board, when board members specified students and staff would not be discriminated against based on sexual orientation or transgender status.
Campbell said adding those categories to the policy could cement the rights of transgender students to enter bathrooms and locker rooms corresponding with their gender identities. She criticized such measures at subsequent meetings.
Hough has criticized Campbell’s remarks, saying Campbell promoted discrimination against transgender students. Hough has referred to Moms for Liberty as “far-right extremists.”
Hough has been endorsed by Families for Safe Schools, gun safety group Everytown and Equality Florida, an LGBTQ political advocacy group.
Campbell is endorsed by the Brevard Republican Executive Committee, Ivey and the Brevard chapter of Moms for Liberty.
Campaign financing: Campbell has raised $15,517 in cash contributions (including $2,000 of her own money) and $646 in in-kind contributions (including $560 of her own money), and has spent $11,950. Her contributors include Palm Bay Mayor Rob Medina and attorney/lobbyist Moore’s law firm, as well as three political committees, including Moms for Liberty Florida and Realtors PAC.
Hough has raised $7,813 in cash contributions and $737 in in-kind contributions (including $20 of her own money), and has spent $4,184. Her contributors include Patel, the Democratic state committeeman, and Danelle Dodge, a Democratic candidate for Congress in House District 8
Where is District 5: District 5 in a south Brevard district that includes these high schools: Bayside, Heritage and Melbourne.