Political newcomers Justin Sharpless and Sara Jones are vying for the District 6 seat on the Polk County School Board in the Aug. 23 primary. School Board races are non-partisan so all registered voters in Polk County can participate.
Jones, 33, is an attorney in Lake Wales, where she was born. Her slogan is “advocating for sound solutions.” She is endorsed by Polk County Voters’ League, West Central Florida Labor Council, Democratic Party of Polk County and Polk County Democratic Black Caucus.
She has a total of $13,244 in her campaign warchest, $2,000 of which she donated to herself. Nancy Crissman of Lakeland donated $1,000. Jones has spent $8,145 on campaign expenses, including $2,000 in March to Taylor Aguilera, a campaign consultant, to help her get geared up.
Jones is working to overcome an event that was revealed during the campaign. Due to an administrative assistant’s mistake, Jones failed to appear before a judge on behalf of a client, thinking the client was now being represented by the Public Defender’s Office.
“When additional documents were coming in from the judge’s office, essentially telling us that the appropriate thing hadn’t been done and that we needed to respond or either show up in court, I was not getting those documents because my assistant who filed all of my (documents) was putting them into a closed file that I wasn’t looking at,” Jones explained. “I take full responsibility for the mistakes that I’ve made and the fact that I wasn’t in court when I was supposed to be in court … I’m so incredibly grateful that there was no harm that came to a client as a result. But I have changed the systems in my office to make sure that nothing like that happens again, and I will fully comply.”
Sharpless, 38, is also from Lake Wales. He teaches agriculture at Warner University. His campaign slogan involves his nickname: “Sharpie for Students.” He is endorsed by Business Voice (Lakeland Chamber of Commerce), Republican Party of Polk County, Polk County Builders Association, Lakeland Association of Realtors, East Polk Association of Realtors, Fort Meade Mayor Bob Elliott, and Winter Haven 9-12 Project.
Sharpless has out-fundraised Jones, with $44,252 in donations. Several multimillionaires have provided Sharpless with $1,000 checks, including trucking company owners Thomas and Lynn Oakley of Winter Haven, Publix heiress Julie Fancelli’ through her living trust, and former Florida Senate President J.D. Alexander of Lake Wales.
George and Erica O’Neill of the Lake Wales community of Mountain Lake also contributed. In addition, 15 people or companies at 346 E. Central Ave. in Winter Haven wrote $250 checks to Sharpless and one $500 check.
Sharpless has spent more than $36,800, including $21,609 on direct mailings.
Sharpless signed a card pledging to support Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education priorities.
Both Jones and Sharpless responded to LkldNow’s request for an interview, spending 20 to 30 minutes answering about a dozen questions.
Why are you running for School Board?
Because I think, right now, our educators, our community and our students need an advocate on the board that is going to advocate for real issues that are affecting our students and our staff and our community. And really pay attention to what the actual issues are, that are going to make sound decisions based on facts and research, and are going to put our students in a position where they can be more successful once they finish our K through 12 schools.
What do you think some of those issues are?
One of the latest issues right now is the educator crisis. So we have record shortages, and I know that every candidate is talking about this. But I really think that I have honed in on the real issue behind the educator crisis and I’ve talked about it a lot of times and basically every forum that I’ve been in and every time I’ve had the opportunity to speak because I think this is the biggest issue that’s facing our School Board right now. School boards, schools across the country. It’s not something that’s just happening in Polk County, but we have to solve the issues in Polk County and I would like for us to be a leader … And I think that our educator crisis really comes down to … the feelings that educators are having surrounding society’s feelings around them. There’s a lot of rhetoric that blames teachers for a lot of the things that are going on in schools, many of which are not their fault. And we’ve gone from a society that really respects educators as professionals, to one that almost denigrates them and blames them for all of our societal problems and everything that’s going on in our public schools. And that’s very difficult for them, particularly when they’re underpaid and when they are covering the positions that you know that people have vacated because they aren’t willing to be a part of public education anymore.
And I think that we need to find creative, innovative ways to let our educators know that we appreciate them, that we respect them as professionals and not devalue their certification and not continue to sort of blame them for issues that they don’t have the authority to fix, that the educators come in and they love our children and then we tell them that they’re doing everything wrong …. And I think that we need to address that particularly because we only have so much power in terms of the wages to pay (them). So the way that we show workers that we appreciate them is respect and paying them well. And we only have so much discretion in our budget in terms of paying them and that means that we need to really focus on the thing that we can change, which is the culture in our society and in our schools, and how much we show educators that we appreciate them.
The second thing that I think is probably the biggest thing that we need to be addressing is learning losses and COVID. Like we went through a global pandemic and, again, this is not something that is unique to Polk County, but it’s something that is at issue for Polk County and we need to make sure that our students are getting the remediation resources that they need to make sure that they can still graduate with the same level of education and training and so that as though they had been in school that whole time. And that’s a very difficult thing to do particularly with the most at-risk kids and particularly with educator shortages. And so I think the School Board is addressing those things and I think that the School Board needs to continue to address those things regardless of who takes the seats after this election.
What is the process of obtaining raises for all employees in a fair and equitable way?
Oh my goodness, depends on what you think of as being equitable. But if you start from where we are today, new teachers have already had that raise and that’s been legislated by the state and there’s nothing that the School Board can do about that. I think part of the process is garnering more money overall to pay for those raises. School Board members and our lobbyists have to make sure that us and along with our community members — get the community involved — and make sure that we’re addressing our legislators in Tallahassee to get more money overall and make sure that that money that comes down the School Board has the discretion to use it for educators’ salary. And when I say educators, I mean every — all employees. I don’t think that we should consider support staff as not educators …. Are there certain levels of educators that have not received raises commensurate with their level of experience? Are there are staff members that are habitually underpaid, such as sanitation staff and transportation staff, that we have a hard time keeping people in those positions because they just don’t make a living wage?
So we have to look at historically what we have done to try to compensate, because there’s not — it’s not as if no effort has been made to make salaries more equitable or to raise salaries. But we have to look at where we are and say, ‘Okay, what have we accomplished and where can we go from here? Who have we not been able to allocate funds toward and can we now allocate those funds now that we’ve requested and received those from the state or can we look at discretionary monies that we can move to teachers’ salaries, which honestly at this point isn’t very much in our budget because the budget is very high,’ which is why I say we need to advocate for more money, but we need to look at who has not been considered as we’re raising salaries and wages and start making sure that we consider those and then from there, as we get through a more equitable salary, wage system overall. How do we then bring everybody up together as salaries increase with inflation over time? How do we continue to move everybody upward and not do the piecemeal solutions that we’ve been doing so far?
Can you explain how public schools are funded?
(Full Time Equivalent) funds are allocated based on, essentially, the students that are being serviced within the school. So each student, based on several factors, have a certain amount of money allocated for their education. And those allocations are distributed twice a year, once in October and once in February. So they do essentially attendance and they see how many students they have enrolled, how many students that have attended, and during FTE week, those numbers are officially counted based on basically the demographics and what the state has said that each student in that particular area in that particular school needs to be educated, that student is allotted essentially a dollar amount. Those numbers might be increased if the student is (special education) or has some other sort of special needs that requires that they have a greater dollar amount allocated for them. But essentially each of the students has a dollar amount that they carry with them … that is associated with each student that allows the school to be funded for that student’s education and so the population of those monies is the school’s budget.
When was the last time you were in a public school? Which one? For what purpose? And what was that experience like for you?
… In June. It was McLaughlin Middle School, so I volunteered at McLaughlin. I don’t remember if that was particularly a meeting about volleyball. One of my staff members is the incoming volleyball coach at McLaughlin. And I participated in some of those meetings. I also went to the transition night where they were, essentially, getting the public input on their transition from being just the middle school to going middle-high school. And so I’ve been participating in those conversations for a while. And so I participated in that process where they were talking about the different changes that they’re going to make the schedules, and the dress code, different things that just affect high school differently than middle school.
I think the thing that stuck out in my mind the most was that I appreciated that they wanted the community’s input. And so I saw that a lot of different people had a lot of different ideas from ideas that I thought were very innovative. Some ideas that, you know, people say, ‘Oh, we’re actually kind of already doing those things.’ And so the community that the opportunity to be involved, and I thought that that was very intuitive and very smart to bring in the community and say, What do you want from your public school and give them options and sort of set some boundaries and say, you know, there might be this option, this option, or this option, so it’s not an open forum. So much that it doesn’t have the chaos of people just throwing out random ideas that may or may not work and have the structure of these are some of the things that we’re thinking of, and we want your input on what you think would be best, but it accounts for people’s lived experiences and people saying, ‘Hey, I just can’t make it to school that my kids get off school at two o’clock then how am I going to, you know, what am I going to do in terms of their aftercare and different things like that’…
Did you attend public school growing up?
Yes. I went to Janie Howard Wilson Elementary School before it was part of the Lake Wales charter school system and then Babson Park Elementary School, and then sixth through twelfth, I went to Frostproof Middle-Senior High.
What do you think you will do better or differently than the person currently in office?
Um, one thing that I think I’ll do differently is to be more present in the schools … But I think that being on the ground and being in person, and what’s happening is very important and listening to the opinions of the people who are on the ground in the classroom. Obviously wouldn’t be my job to direct them or, you know, tell them what to do while I’m there. But I think that that would be very helpful in the process of setting policy, you know, helping to direct the superintendent and really understanding what it is that is happening on a day-to-day basis. I think that helps to inform policy decisions in a way that, sort of, people giving you reports can’t.
Please name three things that you feel like you’ve accomplished in the last four years for Polk County Public Schools.
I know that I have influenced a number of children who care about their education. One of the things that I’m most proud of as a volunteer in public schools is really being able to connect with students. And I’ve had a number of students who didn’t understand why they should care. They didn’t understand why it was important to them that they get good grades, or people say ‘I didn’t want to go to college anyway,’ that they just did not understand the importance of doing really well and trying your best with school. And I’m not going to say I’m the only one who contributed to that knowledge and understanding. But I have seen students who, you know, at the beginning of the year when we start talking with them, mentoring them, having lunch with them, they just kind of are laissez faire, or even — I don’t want to say rebellious — but they just they don’t see the need to do what they’re being asked to do. But when you really meet someone where they are and explain it to them and help them understand how it can be a benefit to them or sometimes just reward them for doing well in a way that they’re not used to, they start to change and they start to do better. And that’s probably, that’s the most rewarding in my opinion.
There’s one particular young lady that I’m thinking of right now, and she came from another school in the county where she had had a bad experience with an adult. And she was getting D’s and F’s and kind of didn’t care. Her mom couldn’t get her to really participate in her own education except by punishing her and now she is in the seventh or eighth grade. And she’s been on the news two or three times this year. You can see the difference in the way she carries herself. She’s an honor roll student. It’s just a huge difference from when I met her and that’s so huge.
The second thing is that I’m very much involved in the progress of schools particularly I’ve been volunteering at McLaughlin for a few years now and I really love talking to Dr. (Deborah Wright) Hudson about where they’re going with the school and what the next great ideas and how we can move the school forward to new heights and how to give the kids more access to things that are going to benefit them. And just really being a part of that ideas process and saying, ‘Oh, I have this resource of someone that I know that can potentially help,’ you know, and really reaching out to the community and doing those private-public partnerships. To make sure that the ideas that our educators have for our students can come to fruition. So that’s been very rewarding for me.
A third thing I think is being in the space to know what’s going on, being in the space to be able to appropriately assess what the people in the building I think a particularly in teachers so I again, I go back to the educator sizes being the biggest thing with our schools. One of the ways that I know what teachers are thinking is because I’m there with them, listening to them, and hearing what they’re saying and a lot of them are saying, ‘It’s the money, but it’s not just money. It’s these other things, too.’ And there are other things that I’ve talked about before and they may not say it in that way. But when they’re describing their experiences, it really comes down to that level of respect and professionalism that that we, I don’t want to say afford them, but that we attribute to them.
What is your opinion of Mr. Heid’s handling of the 16 books some say are pornographic or age inappropriate?
I think he handled it in the best way that he could. I didn’t particularly personally want to see the books come off the shelves, not because I had any stance on the books themselves. But I very much believe in, as we have a policy and procedure in terms of how we have decided that we’re going to handle on any particular issue. Unless there’s something wrong with that procedure, that it needs to be followed because when you start giving special exceptions to following procedure, then your procedure essentially doesn’t mean anything — it’s optional. And so I actually discussed with Superintendent Heid them removing the books from the shelves shortly after it happened, and his response to me was that were threats to have teachers, principals and librarians arrested for allegedly violating laws that prohibited pornographic and explicit materials being distributed to students. And essentially what he said to me was, ‘If they were threatening to arrest me, I would have told them to cuff me. But they’re threatening to arrest my staff and I have to protect my staff’ and he took the position that he was doing what he needed to do to protect his staff. And while they did follow the same exact procedure that is laid out, you know, for challenging books, they did follow a very similar procedure and called a special committee. And I think that he did everything that he could to take the issue seriously, but also not overreact and make sure that he could do a proper and thorough process of vetting these materials to see what our citizens and our county and people who care about public education think as a whole and in context.
Please define critical race theory. Do you think it’s an issue for Polk County Public Schools? Why or why not? And can you name a teacher who teaches it?
Okay, critical race theory. I’m not even going to lie to you and tell you I can tell you the tenets. There are five tenets of critical race theory that is essentially describe a proposition by some race scholars that the binary system of race that we have in this country comes to bear on society in a particular way that disadvantages people of color. That is not an exact recitation of critical race theory, and I don’t want to pretend that I can do it off the top of my head. And to answer part of your question, I don’t think there’s a single public school educator in the county that can name the five tenets off the top of their head. In fact, I’ve operated since the beginning of my candidacy, if there is one, I’ll get them on the ballot. So that probably answers your question as to whether I think it’s a problem in Polk County Public Schools. No, I don’t.
I think that the real issue is that people are afraid that their children are going to be taught that, regardless of race, I think there’s a lot of people who feel that way. And I think that’s because critical race theory is really about that and not the academic version of critical race theory. And I really wish that we could just have an honest conversation about the fact that people are scared that their children are going to be taught in public schools that they are inherently bad because of their race. I think people of all races think that — not every one of our races — but I think that people from all races think that and I think that we should be able to have an honest conversation about it rather than calling it something else.
Can you explain what the state mandates teachers are to teach students about slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights movement?
I can’t say that I know the full and exact content of the curriculum. I know that there are state standards that include American history and that slavery, the racial history, is a part of that. I won’t say racial history, but the history that involves an element of race is a part of that. And I think that the process that has always gone through to vet history books, essentially for those state standards, is a pretty thorough one. But I can’t say that I know the exact content, but my understanding is that accurate history is supposed to be taught. And I don’t think that there is an extensive amount of those lessons in public school curriculum. But if I’m not mistaken, each of those things is addressed at some point in the social studies or history curriculum, in K through 12 education.
Can you name one Polk County public school teacher who is indoctrinating students, and what are they indoctrinating students into?
I don’t think our kids are being indoctrinated. I don’t know any teacher indoctrinating students. I think that indoctrination is a very interesting word and a very interesting phrase when you’re talking about education, because if you think of the literal term, indoctrinating means to instill with doctrine, and so it’s, it’s a very interesting thing, because — if I said what I really think, it will really be unpopular — which is saying the pledge is indoctrination and not in a bad way. We’re teaching them the doctrine of patriotism. And so when you when you use a very vague and blanket term, like indoctrination, I think it pulls on people’s emotions without really analyzing in an intellectual way what people mean, but the real term indoctrination as it’s been used in this election, no, I don’t think that that has happened. And I don’t think that there’s any particular ideology that is being indoctrinated in for our kids. I think that most teachers are trying to teach the standards that they’ve been given and to love our students and to produce students that can be successful.
Why are you running for the School Board seat?
When my first son was born in 2017, I started to think to myself I needed to get involved in our school system. I have in the past. I’m a former teacher, and a current college professor. And when he, you know, he got in, he was born, I got this idea in my head, I needed to get involved. And so I talked to (current School Board member) Lynn Wilson — at the time he was my School Board member — I said, ‘Hey, I want to get involved.’ And so he looked over my resume and he said, ‘Well, I have an opening on the attendance boundary committee.’ He recommended me for that. The School Board appointed me and so I started getting involved. And then I thought, well, this is, this is great, and I could get more involved. So I thought, well, I might as well put my name in the hat. I’ve got two young sons. I’ve got a 4-year-old and 1-year-old. I’m a former teacher. And I graduated from Polk County public schools, and I wanted to give back … And ever since I first started teaching, students have always been my number one priority in the classroom.
I’ve taught at Fort Meade High School, at McLaughlin Middle School, and Lake Wales High School, and now I’m a professor at Warner University.
What subject do you teach?
Agriculture. I’m also a college agriculture professor, as well.
It certainly helps you to understand and appreciate our food production system and the fact that chocolate milk doesn’t come from brown cows. What many times consumers believe that, you know, food just comes from Publix or whatever grocery store they’re at, and not the whole food production system behind it.
What is the process of obtaining raises for all employees in a fair and equitable way?
Well, I would say first, is collective bargaining. You know, we get state funding. We also get local funding, as well. And then the School Board has to sit down with union representatives, whether that’s (Polk Education Association) or (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) and have to work that out. Of course, the superintendent and his office, is the one that works through that, and when it comes to the School Bard, you know, the School Board is, it does ultimately make the decision, but they’re not in the negotiations. But yeah, so I guess the process is to get funds in from the state and local and then have the negotiation piece and that’s working with our staff…
Can you explain how public schools are funded?
Sure. Well, first you get a couple different revenue streams. The state funds us based on (Full Time Equivalent), which is student counts, and those (dollars) come straight from the state through budgetary process. And then, we also have local millage rates and (required) local efforts to help fund as well.
When was the last time you were in a public school? Which one? For what purpose? And what was that experience like for you?
I was in public school … actually it was McLaughlin Middle School. And it was last month. And it was, I was observing some students in their summer camp where they were doing STEM education and they were building — it was really cool. They’re building solar-powered race cars. And they actually were testing them out.
You said you attended public school here.
I did. Yes. I graduated from Lake Wales High School in 2002. Prior to it becoming a charter school.
My son is, he’s going to be VPK this year.
What do you think you’re going to do better or differently than Lynn Wilson?
Well, one thing I’m going to, I want to, I very much think our staff have a lot of the answers to the problems if we just listened to them. And so I plan on going out there — and not just staff, but all stakeholders. I plan on going out to our schools and actually engaging with teachers, at our school sites, having parent meetings. I want to get to know people. I’m very much a person if someone you know, someone entrusted me to do the job, I’m gonna do it to the best of my ability. And to me, that means meeting the people. So that’s one thing I think that I can do.
I do have a lot of respect for Mr. Wilson. But that’s one thing that I think I can do a little better.
Name three things that you’ve accomplished in the last four years for Polk County Public Schools.
Okay, so first thing, I was part of the superintendent search. I was on the citizen screening committee. So we reviewed 52 applicants’ information. And from there we made recommendations to the School Board on which ones should be semi-finalists. So that was pretty time consuming, but I got to know everyone who applied. I went through the resumes and reference letters, all that kind of stuff. So I was a part of that and that eventually led to Superintendent Heid being hired.
Second thing. I’m on the attendance boundary committee with Polk County Public Schools and so we have helped to draw the boundaries. Well, we make a recommendation to the board. We don’t do it. Right. We present recommendations to the board. So we did some of the vetting of that. So I helped with just off top my head Davenport High School. When they did a rezoning there. They’re working on the new elementary school. We’re calling it 21 C right now, which is south of Chain of Lakes Elementary on Old Bartow Lake Wales Road. We helped with looking at Bella Citta boundaries. I mean, a variety of different schools.
I’ve worked with many FFA chapters. Agriculture is a passion of mine, so I helped with officer interviews. When you asked when was the last time you were in school, I almost said this past May with Lake Ridge High School because I helped the ag teacher along with administration at school interview their students that were going to be chapter officers or the high school officers for their FFA chapter. So I’ve done that with numerous schools – Auburndale, Lake Region, so I’ve helped with some of that and leadership development.
What’s your opinion of Mr. Heid’s handling of the 16 books that some say are pornographic or age inappropriate?
I support Superintendent Heid’s efforts. I think that he’s done a pretty good job. He kept it very transparent. He tried to be inclusive of the community and different people in the committees. So overall, I think, so far, he’s doing a great job and I would say the result, which hasn’t came out yet. I know he’s considering an opt-in, opt-out policy. Up to the point, that’s what I support, what he’s doing.
Please define critical race theory.
Well, I had experience with critical race theory in my graduate studies. I’m working on my dissertation right now. Well, it’s actually been put a little bit on hold for this. I didn’t realize how much time this School Board race was going to take, but I’m excited to do what I’m doing. Don’t get me wrong. But I put a pause on that. But when I was in my graduate studies, I’ve encountered critical race theory, part of the College of Education at the University of Missouri. It’s basically a system that comes from legal studies, the law realm, (it’s) a theory that our society basically has as structural inequities based on race and it’s, basically, a graduate-level theory. What else you’d like to know about that?
Is it a problem for Polk County Public Schools?
I don’t believe so. My whole family is teachers. My wife’s a teacher. My father is a teacher. My mother is a teacher, mother-in-law is a teacher, my father-in-law works for the school system in maintenance. So I have a lot of family, it’s — no one’s ever discussed it, you know, any experience with that. I mean, I I’ve not been in every classroom all the time. I certainly don’t think it’s an issue in Polk County Public Schools.
Can you name a teacher who’s taught it?
No, that’s what I’m trying to say. I don’t know of anyone who has taught it. It wouldn’t be age appropriate. So like I said, it’s for legal studies in higher education.
Can you explain or do you know what the state mandates that history and social studies teachers teach in terms of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement?
It would be whatever the state standards are for that — I don’t have those memorized. But that’s, you know, the state has standards when it comes to all subjects.
Can you name one Polk County public school teacher who was indoctrinating a student and into what?
Has County Citizens Defending Freedom endorsed you?
No, I’ve not been endorsed by CCDF.
If they were to endorse you, would you accept their endorsement?
I don’t believe they can endorse, first of all. Listen, I’m gonna be for everybody. So if someone endorsed me, they endorsed me. I’ve accepted endorsements from all different kinds of groups. I’m endorsed by (Polk Education Association teachers’ union). I’m endorsed by Republican Executive Committee, I’m endorsed by the builders, the realtors, the Business Voice. I mean, I’m accepting a privilege. I want to be a board member that is there for all Polk County citizens.
Is there any statement that you’d like to make, anything you’d like to add on?
No, I mean, I’m just a — I’m an educator, parent. I care deeply about our school system. That’s the whole reason why I got into this and I hope the voters agree with me and vote for me on August 23.
A previous version of this story has an incorrect age for Sharpless. He is 38.
Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native. She can be reached at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.