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Palm Beach County school board members begin new terms, after beating 'parental rights' candidates

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Joshua Ceballos / WLRN
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Newly-elected Palm Beach County School Board Member Edwin Ferguson wipes tears from his eyes while giving a speech during a swearing-in ceremony on Nov. 30, 2022.

The Palm Beach County School Board will keep its current leaders, after Chair Frank Barbieri and Vice Chair Karen Brill were re-elected by their colleagues.

Barbieri, an attorney who was first elected to the board in 2008, has previously said he will not run for re-election when his term is up in 2024.

Brill, a real estate agent and advocate for children with disabilities, was first elected in 2010 and fended off three challengers this year.

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Their re-election as board leaders on Wednesday was not unanimous — newly-reelected member Erica Whitfield voted for herself for both chair and vice chair. Board Member Alexandria Ayala also voted for herself for chair and Board Member Marcia Andrews voted for herself for vice chair. The vote was a do-over from last month, when neither member got the four votes needed.

The newest member, Edwin Ferguson, was also sworn in Wednesday, replacing longtime Board Member Debra Robinson who retired this year after serving on the board for more than two decades.

Ferguson is a product of Palm Beach County public schools and a father of two young children. He worked briefly as a teacher in the district before attending law school and starting his own law firm.

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Joshua Ceballos / WLRN
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Palm Beach County School Board Member Edwin Ferguson embraces his two young children during a swearing-in ceremony at the district offices in West Palm Beach.

Standing at the mic before his family, supporters and district staff, Ferguson grew emotional and paused to wipe tears from his eyes.

“I'm gonna keep it short,” he said, before becoming briefly overwhelmed by emotion. “If I keep it at all. I was just thinking about my parents… and I’m so happy for this opportunity.”

Ferguson said he’ll focus on redirecting more resources to some of the county’s poorest students.

“I think it's time that we take a hard look at what resources are in Riviera Beach, Belle Glade and other under-resourced areas in this county and figure out how we can get them more. Because they count too,” he said.

He focused especially on the experiences of Black male students, asking how the district can celebrate their “genius” and help foster critical thinking and self-sufficiency.

Challenges from 'parental rights' candidates

Unlike in other South Florida school districts, incumbents on the Palm Beach board fought off challenges from so-called “parental rights” candidates in this year’s elections.

Opposition to coronavirus safety precautions and anger over how race and identity is addressed in the classroom has fired up a new wave of activists, who have pushed for banning books and restricting curriculum they disagree with.

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Joshua Ceballos / WLRN
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Palm Beach County School Board Member Erica Whitfield gives a speech at a recent swearing-in ceremony. She and the other incumbents on the board beat out challenges from "parental rights" activists this election cycle.

Andrews, a retired teacher and district administrator who represents a sprawling district on the western side of the county that includes the Glades Region, faced four competitors this cycle, after running unopposed just four years ago.

After advancing to a runoff election, Andrews won 56% to 43% against Jen Showalter, a "parental rights" advocate who has used militant language to describe what she alleges is the political and social indoctrination of public school students.

Whitfield won her race against Angelique Contreras, who was present at the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Contreras has said she did not enter the Capitol building and federal records show she has not been charged with a crime in connection to the riot.

Brill also beat out multiple challengers, including Bailey Lashells, the mother of a student named Fiona who was suspended for refusing to wear a mask.

In his race to succeed Debra Robinson, Ferguson beat out another attorney, Corey Michael Smith, as well as Chris Persaud, a district teacher who was arrested after refusing to wear a mask, in violation of school district policy at the time.

Asked about the rise of “parental rights” activism in education, Ferguson demurred.

“There are definitely more challenges in regard to how children are educated. But make no mistake – children will be educated,” Ferguson said. “We’ll find ways to get it done.”

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter