Editor’s Note: The Apopka Voice is running a series highlighting several key 2020 election categories and candidates running in the August 18, 2020 primary, and November 3, 2020 election. While not every category of office will be covered, we will be spotlighting candidates running in the following races in Orange County: Sheriff, Property Appraiser, and School Board Member District 7.
For the Orange County School Board Member, District 7 race, there are three candidates who qualified to run: the incumbent, Board Member Melissa M. Byrd, and candidates Ericka Bell and Jeannetta Maxena. Here is a brief snapshot of these candidates’ campaign finances as of August 12, 2020:
Meet the candidates for Orange County School Board Member, District 7
Melissa M. Byrd: Total contributions received: $24,395.00; Total spent: $13,530.90; Cash on hand: $10,864.10
Ericka Bell: Total contributions received: $3,700.00; Total spent: $2,668.66; Cash on hand: $1,031.34
Jeannetta Maxena: Total contributions received: $1,750.00; Total spent: $1,719.57; Cash on hand: $30.43
We reached out to all of the candidates and requested responses to six interview questions. The incumbent Melissa M. Byrd and candidate Jeannetta Maxena sent in their responses. The order of publishing the candidate profiles was determined by random drawing, with Maxena (1st) and Byrd (2nd).
Who is Melissa M. Byrd?
Melissa Byrd grew up in Altamonte Springs and knew from an early age that she wanted to be a teacher, her passion burning bright even as a kid back at Forest City Elementary. This drive never stopped, propelling her forward to the University of Central Florida (UCF) where, in 1997, she earned her degree in Elementary Education. Straight out of college she landed her first job teaching First Grade at…Forest City Elementary, back where her dream first began.
Besides teaching, Byrd took on additional leadership opportunities while at Forest City, spending two years as a Title I Reading Resource Teacher working with struggling readers in all grades. She implemented and supervised a groundbreaking program at the school, training 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.
From there, Byrd transitioned to leadership at Pace Brantley Hall School in Longwood, where she specialized in working with children with learning differences in First through Fourth grade. While at Pace Brantley, she worked extensively on brain-based research training, completing a clinical supervision course through UCF, as well as graduate level educational leadership courses.
During her span of time with Forest City and Pace Brantley, Byrd got married in 1998 and moved with her husband, Alan, of Alan & Associates, to the Apopka area while continuing to teach and lead.
In 2003, Byrd transitioned out of teaching to raise her two daughters, Abigail and Madeline. Throughout their schooling, Byrd has been actively involved in her daughters’ education, serving as the PTSA Vice President and Chair of the School Advisory Council at Piedmont Lakes Middle, and volunteering at PTA events as well as regularly volunteering in the classroom at Clay Springs Elementary. Byrd also served as a substitute teacher for Orange County Public Schools (OCPS), and worked in elementary, middle and high schools in northwest Orange County.
Selected by BusinessForce members and investors as one of 21 finalists, Byrd was chosen in 2017 to participate in the Orlando Business Force’s Central Florida Political Leadership Institute, graduating that same year as the only one representing OCPS. She went on in 2018 to graduate as well from Leadership Apopka through the Apopka Chamber of Commerce.
With years of educational experience behind her and fresh from new leadership training, Byrd decided to run for Orange County School Board Member, District 7, in the fall of 2018 to fill the vacant seat left by Christine Moore, the previous School Board Member running for the County Commissioner, which had been vacated by then County Commissioner-turned-Mayor of Apopka, Bryan Nelson. Byrd won the School Board seat handily, with over 60% of the votes.
While most new school board members can look ahead to having four years with which to move priorities forward, Byrd had only two since she was elected to complete the final two years of Moore’s term. But in that short span, Byrd accomplished a great deal for Orange County schools, and for the community.
Since elected, Byrd has:
- Delivered District 7’s first K-8 school – to be built in Apopka – four years early, projected to open in 2022 instead of 2026
- Strengthened OCPS career training opportunities in architecture and health care
- Helped create Orange County’s first culinary magnet at Wekiva High
- Provided the largest pay raise for teachers in all of Central Florida
- Pushed academic excellence through district-wide speech and debate initiative
- Led effort to ensure equal treatment of girls with dress code – the first gender neutral dress code in OCPS history
- Fairer enforcement of Code of Conduct for all students
- Provided grants to every district school for local programs
- Increased focus on student mental health in OCPS strategic plan
- Fought for working families in school start-time debate
- Protected baseball and softball programs with new, safe district-wide field lighting
With all of this work, it’s no surprise that in 2019, Byrd was named an Emerging Leader from the Florida School Boards Association and in 2020, she earned the distinction of Certified Board Member.
Beyond serving the constituents of OCPS, Byrd is also engaged in her community, active on the Community Action Board for Orange County Government, the Apopka Community Advisory Council for AdventHealth Apopka, as well as the Wekiva Culinary Program Advisory Council.
Now in 2020, Byrd is running for re-election to the Orange County School Board District 7 to “fight for the students, parents and teachers of Northwest Orange County”.
If re-elected, Byrd has plans to focus on improvement in four areas:
- Educational opportunities
- Classroom environment
- Teacher advocacy
- Community schools
Byrd, her husband, and two daughters, Abigail, 14, and Madeline, 10, attend Journey Christian Church, and as a family, enjoy volunteering in many local non-profits, including Community Based Care of Central Florida, Coastal Conservation Association, Valencia Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, Family of Friends, Shepherd’s Hope and Children’s Tumor Foundation. Byrd is an avid animal lover, having adopted several dogs – currently owning two – three rescued cats, and a pet snake. Byrd insists the snake is her husband’s pet, and… definitely. Not. Hers.
Interview questions and Byrd’s responses
If re-elected to this position, and if COVID-19 is still going strong, what would you do to make sure your vision for and effectiveness as a leader for and with the community stays on track and makes a difference?
“I would continue to do what I have been doing since this pandemic started. I will stay in constant communication with my community. I have been available to answer the hundreds of emails that have been coming in daily and the questions sent to me on social media. I recently held a community meeting virtually and had over 100 participants. I plan to continue that if the virus makes meeting in person unsafe. I make sure I inform the community of any changes that develop as well. I have always and still believe that communication is such an important part of my job as a board member. COVID-19 will not stop me from being an effective leader.”
What have you been doing that is unique to let voters know who you are and what you are about since campaigning during COVID-19 (mid-March to present)?
“I am relying on mail pieces, virtual interviews, emails, virtual hob nobs, and social media to get my message out this campaign. That is quite different from my last campaign where I knocked on thousands of doors talking to voters, but I still believe my message is getting out.”
What has been a highlight during your experience running for this position?
“For me, the highlight has been the enormous support I have received from my constituents. So many people have reached out to say they are voting for me again because they feel I have done an excellent job on the school board. There is no better feeling than knowing that the people I represent are happy with the job I have done the last two years.”
What do you see as the greatest challenge facing this office / position?
“Without a doubt it is the challenge of educating over 200,000 students in a pandemic and keeping them and the 25,000 employees safe. We are facing a situation that no one in a hundred years has faced. We have no road map to direct us and we have been required to think creatively, innovate, and collaborate new and diverse ways to do this. Monitoring the spread of the virus through the upcoming year and being nimble in response is going to be a focus this year.
Besides that, growth management is the next big challenge. We are expected to continue to have great growth in District 7 and making sure we are ahead of that growth and have adequate school facilities is a priority I have and will continue to work on.”
What is your #1 hope for Orange County that you would love to make a reality if re-elected?
“I have already made so many hopes a reality in my first two years in office. I hope to continue to do that for the next four years. My biggest hope would be to continue to bring unique opportunities to all our students. We have amazing magnet programs in Orange County and I have worked to bring several new ones to District 7 like the Culinary Magnet at Wekiva High. But my concern is for our lower income students throughout the county that don’t have transportation to get to those magnet programs. My hope is that we can work towards replicating our most successful magnet programs throughout the county so all children have the opportunity to experience them.”
What would you like to say to voters who have not decided who they will vote for yet?
“I would like to encourage them to reach out to me at email@example.com and ask me questions and get to know me. On my website is a long list of accomplishments I have after just two short years in office. I am convinced that if I can accomplish all of that, I can accomplish so much more in four more years. Serving my community on the school board has been the joy of my life and I am excited beyond belief to continue my service.”
Equality Florida Action PAC; Orlando Sentinel; West Orange Political Alliance; The Greater Orlando Builders Association
About the process: The Apopka Voice emailed the same six questions to all candidates running in the offices and positions outlined above, if their email address was listed. In cases where no email was provided, we left a voicemail requesting their email, and /or sent a message on Facebook requesting it if no phone number was provided. There were a few candidates that provided no contact information at all, or their voice mailbox was full. The response deadline was given equally to all candidates. Biographical information was pulled from the candidates campaign websites and / or Facebook page.