School Board: Nolte Unseats Fortney; Fields Returns; Sharpless Wins; Miller Faces Sessions in Runoff

Rick Nolte, who received the backing of Gov. Ron DeSantis and conservative activist organizations, unseated one-term incumbent Sarah Fortney from the Polk County School Board today in an election that saw the return of 20-year School Board veteran Kay Fields and the victory of newcomer Justin Sharpless. Incumbent Lisa Miller faces a Nov. 8 runoff with Jill Sessions.

School Board members set policy for a massive school district that encompasses 116,000 students, 13,000 employees and a $2.2 billion budget.

About 100,000 people voted in each school board race out of 458,210 people are registered to vote in Polk County.

District 3: Nolte wins

Political newcomer Nolte bested incumbent Fortney in the tightest race of the night. He garnered 50.97% of 101,682 votes, with Fortney earning 49.03% of the votes.

The non-partisan race pitted two longtime teachers, both retired, against each other. Fortney taught science for 33 years, most recently at Stambaugh Middle School in Auburndale. Nolte taught physical education and health for 36 years, mostly in Hillsborough Country. 

Nolte, 66, owns a golf club manufacturing and repair shop and hosted for himself a June golf fundraiser at Cleveland Heights Country Club. His endorsement by Gov. Ron DeSantis seemed to be the deciding factor, along with an infusion of cash by Florida Crystal sugar company to the Education for All Political Action Committee, which paid for a barrage of last-minute campaign ads for Nolte.

Nolte was a part of County Citizens Defending Freedom’s efforts to place extremely conservative candidates on the School Board. He was also endorsed by the Republican Party of Polk County and the Winter Haven 9-12 Project. He signed a card pledging to support Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education priorities, including “educate, don’t indoctrinate,” and keeping schools open during pandemics.

Fortney, 61, spent four years working to increase the amount of school counselors and psychologists at Polk’s 150 schools, which coincided with a state push for the same.

“People know my heart — I’m going to continue to work,” Fortney said in a late-night phone call with LkldNow. “My soul is good but my visceral response is not.”

District 5: Fields wins

Incumbent Kay Fields held off challenger Terry Clark for the District 5 Polk County School Board seat by a margin of 52.90% to 47.10% out of 100,953 votes cast.

Fields, 70, is the longtime executive director of Girls Inc., a non-profit organization that provides after-school and summer programs. She has been endorsed by Sheriff Grady Judd, Business Voice (Lakeland Chamber of Commerce), Polk County Builders Association and the Polk County Voters’ League.

Terry Clark, 72, is another candidate encouraged by CCDF to run. He is a businessman. According to state records, he is the registered agent for TLC Resurfacing, and T&C DSF Marketing LLC is registered under Clark’s name and at his home address. His campaign slogan is “Educate, not indoctrinate.” He was endorsed by the Lakeland Association of Realtors and the Republican Party of Polk County, Florida Rep. Anthony Sabitini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, Ed Shoemaker, president of the Faith Based Republican Club of West Polk County, and the Winter Haven 9-12 Project.

Fields, a devout Christian, said she first wanted to thank God.

“Because He is the one that made all this come together for the good,” Fields said. “What the enemies meant for my bad, God turned around for my good.  I’m just so thankful for the support of the voters and that I’m worthy enough to serve four more years on the School Board.”

Fields called the race one of the nastiest she has ever endured.

“I’m hoping and praying we can go past all the turmoil we’ve been having and do what’s best for all the students, the employees, the school district and our community. That’s my prayer,” Fields said in a telephone call as a happy crowd in the background continued to celebrate. “To imply that I’m not a Christian and I don’t love America – that’s just foolishness.”

She said it has been an honor and a privilege to serve with Fortney, who lost to Nolte.  When asked how she is going to feel serving alongside Nolte, who attacked the fact that Fortney’s is gay, Fields hesitated to answer.

“That’s a very difficult question — I’m just going to pray over that one and seek guidance and wisdom from the Lord,” Fields said. “I think there’s some interesting elections, but nothing like this.  This was a nasty, a nasty election and it just saddens me that we can’t focus on the issues at hand and deal with truth and facts instead of lies and things that are just not true.  That saddens me and I hope we can get past that, I really do.”

District 6: Sharpless wins

Political newcomers Justin Sharpless and Sara Jones fought for the District 6 seat on the Polk County School Board, with Sharpless winning with 51.39% to Jones’ 48.61% out of 99,800 votes cast.

Jones, 33, is an attorney in Lake Wales, where she was born. She was endorsed by Polk County Voters’ League, West Central Florida Labor Council, Democratic Party of Polk County and Polk County Democratic Black Caucus.

Sharpless, 38, is also from Lake Wales. He teaches agriculture at Warner University.  His campaign slogan involves his nickname: “Sharpie for Students.” He was endorsed by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, 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 signed a card pledging to support Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education priorities, including “educate, don’t indoctrinate,” and keeping schools open during pandemics.

“I’m trilled and grateful for today’s outcome and am thankful to God, my family, friends, and supporters for making it all possible,” Sharpless said in a text message to LkldNow. “I also congratulate Sara Jones on a hard-fought campaign.  I look forward to hitting the ground running in November and partnering with all vested stakeholders to ensure all Polk County children have access to a high-quality education.”

District 7: Miller and Sessions are pitted in a runoff

The campaign for the District 7 seat on the Polk County School Board seat was a three-way race between incumbent Lisa Miller, and newcomers Dell Quary and Jill Sessions. Because no one candidate received more than 50% of the vote, Miller, with 42.43%, and Sessions, with 37.45%, will face each other in a November runoff. More than 99,600 people voted in that race. Quary received 20.12% of the vote.

Miller, 46, is affiliated with family-owned MillShire Realty and the mother of an 11-year-old daughter, Evie, and 20-year-old son, Michael, who is profoundly autistic.  Miller has spent 15-plus years advocating for the rights of special-needs children. She was endorsed by Business Voice (Lakeland Chamber), East Polk Association of Realtors, Lakeland Association of Realtors, and the Polk County Builders Association.

“I am looking forward to the contrast in this upcoming race,” Miller said.  “My opponent hired a criminal to run her campaign. I do not believe the citizens of Polk want to be represented by someone who has that kind of lack of judgement and ethics.  I will continue to fight for the kids of Polk County.”

Miller was referring to James Dunn. CCDF officials introduced Nolte, Sessions and Clark to the Texas political consultant, who has a felony fraud conviction for submitting false claims for $300,000 to the federal government in 2008 and served nearly three years in federal prison.

Quary, 67, recently retired as the school district’s analyst for technology and ERate, overseeing grant applications for technology. She has served for years in the school system, first as a para-educator and then as the first Title I parent liaison. She became an academic advisor at the college level and a part-time professor at Polk State College, teaching computers and information systems. Then she took a job as an analyst for Polk County Public Schools. She was endorsed by Polk County Voters’ League, the Democratic Party of Polk County and Polk County Democratic Black Caucus.

Sessions, 57, said she will resign from her full-time job as director of solid waste for the city of Plant City, but will keep her part-time job as an adjunct, online college professor if she were to win a seat on the School Board. She was been endorsed by the Republican Party of Polk County and Winter Haven 9-12 Project. Sessions signed a card pledging to support Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education priorities, including “educate, don’t indoctrinate,” and keeping schools open during pandemics.

LkldNow was unable to reach Sessions Tuesday evening.

Miller said she will also miss her friend and colleague on the board, Sarah Fortney.

“Sarah Fortney is a true advocate for students and staff,” Miller said. “I am sure she will continue to be a strong voice in our community.”

The Miller-Sessions runoff race will conclude in the November 8 general election.

County Citizens Defending Freedom issue a statement late Tuesday evening, noting that they are a non-partisan organization and congratulating Nolte, Sharpless and Fields on their wins.

“We join the candidates and incumbents in being relieved to see this controversial campaign that has exasperated division in our county come to an end,” said a statement sent to LkldNow by CCDF USA Elections Division Leader Sarah Calamunci. “Out of the controversy and intrense passion that brought out the negative in many, has risen an awakening and engagement in our community that we have not seen before … This election has elevated awareness and involvement throughout our county, and with that, we all win.”

Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native.  She can be reached at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.

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