Race Analysis: School Board District 5

Dennis "Mitch" Maley
The Manatee County School Board District 5 race features incumbent James Golden and two challengers: Richard Tatem and Chantel Wilford. If no candidate gets a majority of votes, the top two vote-getters will compete in a runoff on the November ballot.

Golden is a former Bradenton City Councilman who has unsuccessfully run for both the Manatee County Commission and U.S. Congress. A lawyer by trade, Golden is intelligent, highly educated, and well versed in matters of the board after having served one full term. Of current board members, he is the one who has been most loyal to the school district administration and, when running in 2018, described his job as supporting the superintendent.

However, the public has, at several times over the past four years, had very good reason to be frustrated with that administration from the grad inflation scandal to the questionable takeover of Lincoln Memorial Academy. While most metrics of evaluating outcomes have improved in recent years, 17 schools received a lower grade from the state this year, while only three received higher ones. That said, the district did maintain its overall rating of "B."

When we have been critical of Golden, it has almost exclusively been owed to his reluctance to waiver from that support position in order to hold the administration accountable for its failures. The board's role is not one of support but oversight, and taxpayers should expect more when such inefficiencies are causing their significant investment in public education to be diverted from classrooms and teachers.

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

Richard Tatem is a retired Air Force Colonel who hosts a local radio show. Like Golden, Tatem has some experience in the classroom. While school board races are supposed to be non-partisan, they have become increasingly less so in recent years, with parties and candidates injecting ideology at nearly every turn.

Tatem makes no secret that he is deeply conservative and that his beliefs are informed by his Christian faith. I found him to be honest, intelligent, and forthright, despite disagreeing with several of his positions and not being particularly comfortable with candidates whose religious beliefs are so forward in their platform. Tatem has made an issue of both CRT and DEI, two buzzwords in the culture war that is currently taking place around public schooling, especially here in Florida. He was also a very vocal critic of the school district’s masking policy, a matter that divided the community.

While there is somewhat broad agreement among parents that they should have a say in their child’s education and that the curriculum should be transparent and free from ideological bias or indoctrination, there is equally broad disagreement over what that looks like. Tatem received an endorsement from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who injected himself into local school board races after sending out a pledge for prospective candidates.

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

Chantel Wilford has a diverse background that includes a considerable amount of education abroad before returning to the U.S. for a year of post-graduate training as a translator and interpreter at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. She also has classroom experience, having taught in France. Wilford works as a multi-lingual translator and home-schooled her children until they transitioned to Manatee County public schools in District 5 when they hit 5th grade.

After interviewing all three candidates, Wilford was definitely the one whose prospects I found most exciting. I found her to be deeply intellectual and decidedly non-partisan. Her diverse background would also lend a fresh perspective to a board that can use some outside-the-box thinking. She displays an undeniable passion for education and is committed to directing it at the district where her family's children attend school.  

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

Golden and Tatem are the two frontrunners in the race, having raised far more campaign contributions than Wilford, who is running a grassroots campaign on a shoestring budget. It is relatively easy to separate Golden and Tatem based on your ideological beliefs and whether you support the status quo of the district under Superintendent Cynthia Saunders. 

If you wish to stay the course with someone who has rarely disagreed with the administration, Golden is your candidate. If you agree with DeSantis, his concerns regarding public education, and his agenda to combat it at the local level, Tatem is the obvious choice.

For those who feel that Golden has not proven himself willing and/or able to confront the administration strongly when required, but do not like the prospects of someone so far to the right as Tatem, Wilford provides a very attractive alternative.

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.