Race Analysis: School Board District 2

Dennis "Mitch" Maley
The Manatee County School Board District 2 race features three candidates vying for the seat that will be vacated by veteran incumbent Charlie Kennedy. If no candidate gets a majority of votes, the top two vote-getters will compete in a runoff on the November ballot.

Harold Byrd is a former Bradenton City Councilman who gave up his seat in 2020 to run for mayor. Byrd is a multi-generation Florida native whose family has deep roots in both the district and public education in Manatee County. In fact, his own mother once held the seat. 

As a city commissioner, Byrd earned a reputation for working hard for the constituents in his district and not for the developers and other special interests who hold so much sway over that body. On a school board that has also at times fallen into that trap, Byrd’s record of integrity would be an asset.

Throughout his career, Byrd has demonstrated himself to be an intelligent and thoughtful man of character and integrity. His record of service to this community is beyond impressive. A child of two teachers, Byrd has spent time as a long-term substitute in the district’s alternative school.

Mr. Byrd recently discussed his candidacy in a podcast you can listen to here.

Cindy Spray is Vice-Chair of the Manatee School District Citizens Oversight Committee, and the Vice President of the Manatee County Foster & Adoptive Parent Association, as well as a board member of Guardian Angels of Southwest Florida. She has a long record of volunteer service to both the community at large and the district. Spray has been a vocal advocate for numerous educational issues.

Spray drew pointed criticism for two answers to her League of Women Voters 411 questionnaire. In the first, she indicated that she supported for-profit charter schools as an important way to offer Manatee County parents choices. While some non-profit charter schools have had incredible success in helping students who might not fit the traditional public school model, the record of for-profit charters is much less flattering.

On the question, "What steps do you believe should be taken to ensure all students are taught African American history as required by state law and recommended by the district’s African American Task Force?” Spray answered:

"The history of the African American community may have started in Africa where many black leaders sold their people across the world for goods or services to benefit themselves. In America, we took the positive steps to undo the bad actions of people who took advantage of their positions. In our country, many did not want things to change. You can see that by looking at the Congressional Voting Records from 1866-1874 and the overdue Civil Rights Act in 1964. Our Constitutional 13th Amendment to Abolish Slavery had a vote of 93% Republicans and 23% Democrats who supported it. Our Constitutional 14th Amendment for Full Citizenship had a vote of 94% Republicans and 0% Democrats who supported it. Our Constitutional 15th Amendment for the Right for Blacks to Vote had a 100% of Republicans and 0% of Democrats supporting it. I find it astonishing that one of the greatest men in black history, Frederick Douglas, and the bond he had to work with our congress to undo our tragic past.”

We made several attempts to schedule a podcast with Ms. Spray but were unsuccessful. 

School board races are supposed to be non-partisan, even though they have become increasingly less so in recent years. Spray has been endorsed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who delved into local school board races after issuing a "pledge” to prospective candidates. Depending on whether you agree with DeSantis’s culture war positions on public education, this will either be a plus or a minus. If you do, however, there are few candidates on the far right who have a better record of public service to our local school system than Ms. Spray.

Susan Agruso brings, by far, the most experience in public education to the race. In fact, the former teacher and school superintendent’s decades of service to public schools make her one of the most exciting and qualified candidates to run for the board in all the years I’ve covered it. Agruso also boasts six years as an integral member of the district’s audit committee, assembled in the wake of profound financial missteps that have cost the district tens of millions in resources, including two years as chair.

Agruso brings a level of system awareness that would be unprecedented on the board. With a solid understanding of the district’s finances and the experiential knowledge that will enable her to not only ask the right questions on complex issues but also know when they don’t add up, Agruso, who has remained fiercely nonpartisan, presents voters with an option they are unlikely to see again anytime soon.

Agruso recently discussed her candidacy in a podcast you can listen to here.

Voters can sort out the candidates in this race relatively easily. If they agree with DeSantis and the far right on the culture war elements of public education and feel that Manatee County is somehow threatened by such matters, they will be voting for Spray. If not, there is a somewhat difficult choice between Byrd’s unquestionable dedication to the community, his experience as an elected official, and his knowledge of the community and Agruso’s unrivaled understanding of public education as well as the nuts and bolts of Manatee County Schools. 

Dennis "Mitch" Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times and the host of our weekly podcast. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County government since 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University and later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Click here for his bio. His 2016 short story collection, Casting Shadows, was recently reissued and is available here.