From Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice
Melissa Byrd is a mother, a teacher and a first-time candidate for the District 7 seat of the Orange County Public School Board. And with only three days to go in the 2018 election, she is also the frontrunner.
District 7 covers northwest Orange County and includes the Apopka, Ocoee, and Wekiva high schools and their middle and elementary schools that feed into them. The seat was vacated by District 7 member Christine Moore, who is running for the District 2 Orange County Commission seat.
Byrd nearly won in the August primary when she received over 45% of the vote. She needed 50%-plus-one to avoid the runoff.
But Eric Schwalbach, her opponent who narrowly defeated two other opponents with just under 23% of the vote to claim second place in the primary and qualify for the runoff, is not going down without a fight.
Schwalbach, a 22-year teacher mostly in the Orange County Public School system, has challenged Byrd relentlessly on social media, in interviews, and in area publications. He questions Byrd’s qualifications to be the District 7 board member, and most of all her connections to political leaders and business owners in Orange County.
He also takes issue with the Orange County Public School Board, and its system as it relates to teachers.
“After 22 years of teaching, I realized teachers are working hard and the system itself can be improved. Everybody is kind of blaming teachers and they always seem to take the hit, and they want to get rid of teacher’s unions. As a teacher, I always had great scores, and I always knew that if my scores are better than 95% of teachers in the state then why wasn’t anyone from our county asking me what I was doing to get those scores? Then they would change things and you as a teacher knew it wasn’t working. I always knew the local system could be improved. Everything was about manipulating data and not helping the kids.”
Byrd too has issues with OCPS. That’s one of the reasons she decided to run for the school board seat.
“I’ve been part of OCPS for 10 years as a parent, and during that time things come up that frustrated me, or that I didn’t understand, or just wasn’t thrilled about, and being a former educator I knew things were being done that could be done better… and as time went on I decided to be part of the solution.”
Byrd grew up in Altamonte Springs and graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in elementary education. She taught primarily in Seminole County, beginning at Forest Lake Elementary School where she taught first grade, and spent two years as a Title I reading resource teacher working with struggling readers in all grades. According to her website, she implemented and supervised a groundbreaking program at the school where she trained older students in specific reading strategies to work with, and remediate, below level readers in younger grades. She was also the staff trainer for the Reading Recovery and Four Blocks literacy program.
“I have a passion for education,” she said. “I’m from a family of educators, and this is a good way to put that passion to work.”
Schwalbach also graduated from UCF with an education degree. Currently, he teaches math at a Lake County middle school but has been an educator continuously for over 20 years as well as a realtor, mortgage broker, restaurant owner, and financial planner.
He decided to run because he is upset that education is too often dictated by politics and it is his belief that teachers should be in charge of the school board – not politicians. Schwalbach believes that his experience as a teacher could propel him to do even more good for students as a school board member as he has done as an educator.
“I’ve impacted thousands and thousands of lives,” he said. “Newspaper articles after newspaper articles of kids that I’ve saved…but there’s also a handful of kids that have died and some are in prison, so I wish we could have done more sports programs. On the weekend, let’s open the gyms up and bring in these community members and hold sporting events and activities where the kids can get to meet different community members and be positive. I’ve seen it all. I’ve taught low-income kids. I’ve taught high-income kids. I’ve taught both low and high performing kids. I have my real estate and mortgage licenses, I’ve owned a restaurant, and I’ve had a financial planning business. But if I look back on my life and I ask myself ‘what’s the most important thing I’ve done in my life’ it has nothing to do with how many rental properties I’ve bought and sold. It has to do with the number of lives I’ve changed.”
After the birth of her first daughter, Byrd left the classroom to raise her children, Abigail, 14, and Madeline, 10. Throughout their schooling, Melissa has been actively involved in her daughters’ education. She currently serves as the PTSA vice president and chair of the School Advisory Council at Piedmont Lakes Middle School. At Clay Springs Elementary School, she volunteers at multiple PTA events and was a regular classroom volunteer. She currently serves as a substitute teacher for Orange County Public Schools.
It is as an OCPS substitute teacher and as a parent that Byrd decided to be a part of the change she believes is needed to improve schools.
“Being a parent and a substitute teacher that’s in the day-to-day mix of what’s going on in education today I see all the decisions that come down from the board that affects all the kids, the parents, and the families and I want to help make those the right decisions.”
Byrd left full-time teaching in 2003, and according to Schwalbach, a lot has happened in that time frame that Byrd is behind the curve in.
“My opponent stopped teaching in 2003. The I-Phone was invented in 2007. So you can imagine how much has changed since then,” he said. “My opponent has never worked in the Orange County Public School system – ever. I’ve taught at so many different schools and to so many different age ranges…so if I’m sitting at a board meeting and they say ‘we’re going to try this particular program’… well, I will have a better understanding of what they are proposing. Knowing the ins and outs of proposals really makes a difference.”
But his most pointed critique of Byrd is her contact with politics and politicians.
“One of the reasons I’m concerned is that I want politics out of education,” said Schwalbach. “When I saw her (Byrd’s) first fundraiser and I saw all the political connections that her husband has, a lot of red flags went up for me because I don’t want more politics in schools. I want less politics in schools. I get a little worried at all the different people. She had a fundraiser at a construction company. That’s a red flag.”
Byrd’s husband Alan is a political consultant who runs a public relations firm – Alan Byrd and Associates. She makes no apologies for her contacts to business and political leaders in Central Florida. In fact, she embraces the relationships she has built.
“I have really strong connections in the community. My husband and I have been in Apopka for 20 years and owned a small business for 10 years. In that time I’ve had opportunities to form lots of relationships with lots of community leaders, and what I think that brings to the board is a connection to resources that you can call on to help our schools. I think we need more community involvement and it has to be somebody that has those relationships in place. It can only help to know people.”
She also pushes back when the suggestion that her husband is calling the shots in her campaign or potentially on the board if she is elected.
“I make my own decisions. That’s what frustrates me… that there’s this innuendo that I can’t make decisions on my own or that my husband influences my decision and that’s just not the case. It’s aggravating, and kind of offensive to think a woman can’t have her own opinion, her own point of view, but beyond that, I don’t see it as a negative. Part of the reason why OCPS isn’t always successful is that they sometimes don’t have a good working relationship with the governments around them. We need to work with local municipalities better. To be able to pick up a phone and have a decision-maker take your call because they know you is an advantage. I don’t think that’s a disadvantage at all. Some see that as a dirty business I guess, but I don’t see it that way and I’m not in it for that. I’m a mom and a teacher. The only reason I’m doing this is for the kids, these schools and for my community. So for there to be any talk that I have some other motivation or agenda isn’t true.”
But Schwalbach does not agree that those connections are an advantage. He believes they could potentially be a conflict of interest.
“I would rather get $25 from every teacher in the OCPS and use my own money than to take money from special interest groups trying to sway my decisions for their profit. I cannot be bought. I really want the best candidate to win, not the candidate who raised the most money.”
Not only is Schwalbach spending his own money on the campaign, but he also says he will spend it on students if elected.
“I still teach and I will continue to teach if elected. You get $40,000 to spend on what you deem as a discretionary fund as a school board member. If I were to have that I’d help kids with sports programs, and PAL programs, and tutoring programs all over West Orange County. I could drastically change things. Plus, whatever pay I get as a school board member on top of my teaching salary gives me even more income to really make changes.”
And Byrd, as an elected school board member, has her eye on the Florida Legislature as the best way to advocate for Orange County schools, teachers, and students.
“Being a school board member for one of the largest districts in the state can carry a lot of weight in Tallahassee, and since this will be my fulltime job, I’ll be going up there a lot to lobby on behalf of teachers, because that is where real change needs to take place. Things are coming down from Tallahassee all the time that make teacher’s jobs harder. We have to have people up there knocking on those Legislator’s doors. Orange County can be a very powerful force if we use it right. The OCPS Board has spoken on behalf of teachers in Tallahassee. I want to speak louder.”