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Ed Smith leaves Florida House race for school board

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Polk County Commissioner Ed Smith, a Lake Alfred Republican, has pulled out of the Republican Primary for Florida House District 41, and has entered the nonpartisan race for Polk County School Board against incumbent Dick Mullenax.

Smith said his decision to switch to run for a local office is based “solidly on the health of my wife.”

The change in races leaves two candidates in the Republican Primary for the legislative seat and to woo Smith’s large bloc of supporters gained during his more than 15 years in elected office in the eastern part of the county.

District 41 is being left vacant by Rep. John Wood, a Winter Haven Republican, who is term limited.

Retired contractor and Republican fundraiser Sam Killebrew and former 2nd District Court of Appeals Judge Charles Davis Jr. are seeking their party’s nomination for the seat. Both men are from Winter Haven.

The winner of the GOP contest will face the winner of the Democratic Primary between Nicolas Garcia of Haines City and former Circuit Judge Bob Doyel.

Smith, 74, is a 28-year Navy veteran. He had two terms on the Lake Alfred City Commission and was twice the city’s mayor. He also has been chairman of the Polk County Commission.

He has a master’s degree in education from Old Dominion University.

After his Navy career, Smith worked for the Polk School District 16 years as a classroom teacher, dean of students at Lake Gibson Middle School, and then in the same job at Auburndale High School, where he also was a head track coach.

“I do have experience in education and I still want to serve,” Smith said.

His wife is in remission from cancer but has recently learned she has macular degeneration and is in the early stages of dementia.

“The very idea of going to Tallahassee for 60 days and then all the weeks of committee hearings and 12-hour days is totally out of the question,” he said. “I think Dick is a great guy, but I have educational experience and I have ideas that can help.”

One other incumbent board member is being opposed. Hunt Berryman is being opposed by Franklin “Ed” Shoemaker.

At the last reporting date, Smith had $35,045 in contributions to his legislative campaign and had not spent any.

Under state law, said Barbara Osthoff, an assistant Polk County supervisor of elections, he must notify all contributors to his campaign that he is switching races and offer them a choice of leaving their contributions in his campaign fund or receiving their money back on a pro rata basis. Contributors have 30 days from the time of being notified to request a refund. After that timeline, the money will remain in the campaign fund.

The school board has been under fire recently for its slow handling of an incident with former Superintendent Kathryn LeRoy, who resigned Friday. She received $119,000 in severance and $113,518 in annuity payments.

After complaints about her treatment of some employees, she was accused of sexual harassment by one male staff member. She was exonerated from that charge, but some criticized some of the board members for their foot-dragging on the issue.

More criticism has occurred over the settlement LeRoy received for resigning shortly before the board was to meet, likely to fire her.

And while both challengers entered their respective races before the Friday controversy over LeRoy, the incidents and board members’ reactions just might draw other challengers.

“People tend not to think about government until it becomes inefficient,” said Bruce Anderson, professor of political science at Florida Southern College in Lakeland. “Most of the problems come small. Then greater inefficiencies are uncovered and you have reform-minded people who think their ideas might help.”

Former Ledger of Lakeland columnist Bill Rufty is Central Florida political correspondent for SaintPetersBlog and Florida Politics. Rufty had been with the Ledger from 1985-2015, where, as political editor, he covered a wide range of beats, including local and state politics, the Lakeland City Commission, and the Florida Legislature. Ledger editor Lenore Devore said about Rufty’s 30-year career: “[He is] a man full of knowledge, a polling expert and a war history buff … who has a steel trap in his brain, remembering details most of us have long since forgotten.”

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