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Two new Polk County School Board members and two re-elected members took the oath of office Tuesday morning at the board’s Bartow headquarters. In addition, School Board Chairwoman Sara Beth Wyatt was unanimously re-elected to lead the group, while William Allen was elected 5-2 as vice-chairman.
New member Rick Nolte’s daughter, Jenna Sutton, held his Bible while School Board attorney Wes Bridges administered the oath of office, in which he swore to protect, support and defend the U.S. and Florida constitutions and governments and that he will well and faithfully perform the duties of School Board member.
Nolte was one of three candidates supported by the conservative political group County Citizens Defending Freedom. He was the only one to win, barely beating longtime Polk County Public Schools teacher Sarah Fortney – 50.96% to 49.04% — after being the only local candidate endorsed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Nolte did not prepare any formal remarks, but thanked his friends and family for attending, saying he appreciated their backing and he looked forward to serving.
“God bless and Happy Thanksgiving,” he said.
Kay Fields’s husband, Gow Fields, and their granddaughter, 8-year-old Ari Harris, held a family Bible as her son, Pastor Dorian Harris, administered the oath. Fields then took her seat on the dais and thanked God and those who supported her during what she called “this unusual campaign season.”
Fields was one of three School Board members targeted by CCDF. Bolstered by an endorsement from Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, Fields won re-election, 52.91% to 47.09% against challenger Terry Clark.
“When I decided to seek re-election to the School Board, I prayed long and hard for direction from the Lord. He told me that it would not be easy, but he would be with me. And he was with me to the very end,” said Fields, acknowledging former School Board Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd in the audience. “He sent many of you to help me and I can’t say ‘thank you’ enough. I am excited about the opportunity to serve our students and families for four more years. I promise to do my very best as a school board member each and every day, always putting our students first.”
Justin Sharpless’ father, Daniel Sharpless, a teacher at Roosevelt Academy, held the Bible for his son, while the board member’s wife, Emilyn, an agriculture teacher at Bok Academy South, stood by his side. Senior Polk County Judge Robert L. Williams Jr., a longtime friend of Sharpless, administered the oath.
Sharpless won during the Aug. 23 primary, beating Sara Jones 51.38% to 48.62%.
Sharpless thanked God and his family, supporters and mentors, including retired School Board member Lynn Wilson, in whose seat Sharpless is now sitting. He singled out Emilyn and their sons first in his speech.
“I love you, sweetheart, and appreciate all the days and nights you shouldered your own job, bathtime and volunteering with the campaign so that I could make my case to the voters of Polk County,” said Sharpless. “To my boys, Wyatt and Rhett, you’re the reason I ran for this office. And my hope is that my time I spend serving in this body alongside everyone here leads to a brighter future for you and all the boys and girls across the county, one that helps you reach your full, God-given potential.”
He also thanked his mentor, retired agriculture teacher David Byrd, who ran for School Board four years ago, but lost to Lisa Miller. He also thanked the Polk County school district, “the system that prepared me and put me on this path. I say thank you. I want to give back to the system for all it’s given me.”
He said he ran on a platform to make a MARK — meaningful diplomas, access for all students, recruiting and retaining the best teachers and, initially, kindergarten readiness. He said that, as he campaigned and listened to stakeholders, he realized he should add keeping kids safe. Then he announced a listening campaign beginning in January as he visits all the schools in his district.
School Board member Lisa Miller, who bested CCDF candidate Jill Sessions in the general election, 55.56% to 44.44%, placed her hand on the family bible held by her 11-year-old daughter Evie, while her husband, Bob, and 21-year-old son Michael stood beside her. Pastor Timothy Sizemore administered the oath.
Miller thanked all the volunteers who waved signs at busy intersections for months, delivered yard signs to neighborhoods all over the county, talked to voters and campaigned on her behalf, saying “it did take a village” to keep her in office. And she acknowledged that there were lies told about her – that she was a Democrat (she is non-party affiliated) and that she wants to allow pornography in public schools after she voiced an opinion to keep a decades-old opt-out system in place for library books.
“This campaign was nothing like I’d ever faced before. It was shocking, disturbing for me a lot. But what it showed was, it showed the 15 years of commitment to families is what really stood out and what really brought it home for the community,” said Miller, interrupted by Michael’s verbal intonation. He is profoundly autistic and advocating for him and students like him led her to running for the School Board. “I want to thank those families and everyone that helped bring us to the second term.”
She also thanked David Byrd, saying that while he had been her opponent in 2018, he became her friend, encourager and mentor since.
Miller said she was overwhelmed by the amount of money she wound up raising during the primary and general elections — $77,544. Sessions raised $40,372 and primary opponent Dell Quarry raised $24,282.
“I never imagined raising that kind of money, but people just stepped up and stepped up for kids and they stepped up for facts, they stepped up for truth and I’ll always appreciate that,” Miller said. “I just want to say that I am looking forward to the second term. I’m authentic — if you don’t know — authentic and transparent is how I’ve always worked and I promise to stay balanced and focused.”
The next School Board meeting is Dec. 13 at 5 p.m. at the district offices in Bartow on South Floral Avenue.
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