Her lone and potent voice

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published January 10, 2005

She opposed a new tax for teacher raises, supported those who view the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern heritage and spoke out against school district policies that protect the rights of gay people.

Elected in 1998 and recently chosen by her peers to chair the Pinellas School Board, Nancy N. Bostock has built a reputation as the board’s most conservative member. Sometimes that makes her a lonely voice on a seven-member panel with four registered Democrats and two fellow Republicans closer to the political middle.

But in a post-election atmosphere that pegs Americans as either red or blue, Bostock, 36, offers a reminder that easy political labels don’t always work.

Two of her three children are adopted minorities. Marquish, 9, is African-American, a former foster child diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Rachel, 7, is biracial. Before they were born, Bostock gave birth to Sarah, 11.

Because of their family’s racial mix, Bostock and her husband, Craig, both white, live in an integrated neighborhood in southeastern St. Petersburg.

They do not fit the stereotype – unfair as it is – that only liberals would carve out such a socially conscious life.

That perception is rooted in the Republican party’s traditionally weak connection with black Americans. In Bostock’s case, her stance last year on whether the Confederate flag should be allowed in schools could lead some to brand her as racially insensitive.

Bostock explains her situation openly, having dealt with the perception before.

When she and her husband were courting, she said, they agreed they wanted to adopt. Craig Bostock had been adopted, and their heart-to-heart talks about the topic brought them closer.

But the future School Board member added a twist: “In our early discussions I had said, “Well, you know adopting that white, healthy infant doesn’t really help anybody.”‘

Ten years ago, she said, parents were paying thousands of dollars and waiting years “to adopt that perfect baby.” The Bostocks liked the idea of adopting minority or disabled children who otherwise might not have found a home.

Far from a contradiction, Nancy Bostock argues it all fits neatly into the conservative profile.

“On the surface it may not,” she said. “But if you step back, conservatives say we as individual people ought to step up and take care of each other – not government programs, not tax and spend.

“I can be up there in Tallahassee lobbying to take more money out of everybody’s pockets to have a program to help kids like Marquish. Or I could actually step up and help a kid like Marquish. And so I think it’s very Republican, very conservative, to do something like that.”

Bostock makes the point in the same even-tempered manner she brings to the board table, a trait that has helped her emerge as one of the board’s most savvy and effective members – even as she strays from the pack.

As the board’s only true believer in the education policies of Gov. Jeb Bush, she said she sees herself as a voice for those who voted for him and who share conservative views on fiscal and social issues.

She played that role to the hilt last fall, strongly opposing the board’s decision to ask voters for a property tax increase for teacher salaries. Bostock argued the school district should have first conducted a close examination of its finances.

“There’s a very large portion of this community that doesn’t think necessarily more money is always the answer,” she said in a recent interview.

Bostock’s colleagues chose her as chairperson in part because she had not yet held the yearlong ceremonial post. But it also was a testament to the way she has conducted herself.

On a board where some members have been known to talk out of turn and hold the floor too long, Bostock is choosy about when to speak. That has the effect of adding weight to her words and placing her above the fray.

And while some of her fellow board members readily show irritation and emotion, Bostock remains unflappable. She also displays an ability to move on after hard-fought debates.

It was Mary Brown, defeated by Bostock in a 1998 School Board race, who made the motion Nov. 16 that she serve as chairwoman. Brown said her gesture was a signal she could work with someone she often opposes.

“She has very strong views and I admire her for standing her ground,” said Brown, a registered Democrat and the first African-American elected to the board. “I will stand mine just as strongly. But I think there’s a lot of (mutual) respect there.”

Brown differed sharply with Bostock on the Confederate flag issue, saying the symbol is a painful reminder of racism and a sign of disrespect to a large part of the student body. The issue came up after a Tarpon Springs High student was suspended for starting an unauthorized petition against students who sported the flag on their clothing.

Having long ago worked as a counselor for white parents who adopted black children, Brown said she admires Bostock’s family decisions but finds them difficult to reconcile with the position Bostock took on the Confederate symbol.

“I have been perplexed by it,” Brown said. “There are times when I’ve wanted to sit down and say, “How do you feel about this?’ … I wish we were close enough to just sit and talk.”

The board settled the issue by changing the district’s code of conduct. Under the change, “diversity centered concerns” go to a school’s multicultural committee, which advises the principal on how to handle the issue. The committees are made up of at least 10 students and three adults.

Bostock voted for the change, but made clear her objections. She explained in an interview:

“My concern is that we’ve allowed political correctness to overtake students’ freedom of speech and we’ve said that students who might wear a Confederate T-shirt should have to go to these sensitivity classes through the multicultural committees at their schools. Well, the flip side of that is true also. These are students who are wearing the Confederate flag and may be from families of Southern heritage, of families where that’s their culture. And they don’t necessarily mean anything negative by it to other kids at their school. And to not allow them their freedom of speech and to subject them to these committees and teach them “the right way of thinking’ is just not what freedom of speech is about. And it’s not what our schools should be about.”

Veteran board member Linda Lerner chafes at some of Bostock’s positions, particularly her opposition to anti-discrimination policies for gays. Lerner is the mother of a young man she calls “my wonderful gay son.”

The issue came up in 2003 when the board approved its non-discrimination policy for purchasing and contracting. Bostock cast the lone vote against the policy, saying she could not support the parts that granted protections based on sexual orientation.

Months later, she questioned a survey that asked Pinellas high school students about the climate at their schools. One of the questions: “How is sexual orientation being treated in your school?” Bostock objected, saying students as young as 13 may not yet understand that question. Parents should have been notified and students given the chance to opt out, she said.

Explaining her position on gay issues, Bostock said the district needs to support “all kinds of students in all kinds of situations.” But she added: “Any steps we take to influence the rest of our students … to say that this is acceptable or this is good, that’s where I draw the line. Those are decisions for families, not for school curriculum.”

As a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, Lerner could not be further from Bostock politically. Yet the two are able to work together on other issues.

“Through it all, I think we’ve maintained our relationship,” Lerner said. Sometimes, she said, Bostock’s comments challenge her to think differently.

Bostock traces her conservative roots to her first-ever paycheck from a Clearwater clothing store. Stunned at the amount of taxes deducted, 16-year-old Nancy Joy Nelis asked, “Where’s my money?”

At 18, she registered as a Republican but remembers: “It wasn’t until three or four years later, when I met my husband, that I had any idea what to do with all these opinions and beliefs that I had.”

They met in 1988 at a party that Craig Bostock, a fellow University of Florida student, was holding for fellow Young Republicans in Clearwater. That year he was president of a Gator club working for presidential candidate Jack Kemp.

The future Nancy Bostock quickly became an officer in the Greater Pinellas Young Republicans Club. The following year, she graduated from UF with a history degree. In 1990, she won a scholarship to Georgetown University Law Center after finishing in the top 1 percent on the national law school entrance exam. She left after a year, deciding she didn’t want to be a lawyer.

The Bostocks married in 1991 and have remained highly active in Republican Party politics. Nancy Bostock later got a master’s degree in social science education from the University of South Florida. Craig Bostock works as a program manager for Honeywell International Inc.

They worship at a conservative evangelical church in St. Petersburg.

Today, their three children are enrolled in public school at Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary, where Nancy Bostock gets a candid view of school district operations from other parents in the car line.

In 2003, as part of a large budget cut, she voted with other board members to eliminate the jobs of 400 classroom assistants, many of whom worked with disabled students. One of those assistants had been assigned to her son. But Bostock maintains “it was the right thing to do.” She counted it as a blessing that Marquish was capable enough to do without an aide.

Like all Florida third-graders, Marquish faces the possibility of being held back a year if he doesn’t pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test this spring.

“And that’s okay,” said Bostock, who still would support the law if it affected one of her children. “If children aren’t achieving, sometimes a retention can be what they need.”

Though Bostock’s new role as board chairperson is considered an honor, board members say it also can be an impediment. The chairwoman is so busy running meetings and tending to small matters that there is less time to participate in debate. Bostock says she’s determined to avoid that problem.

Her duty, she said, is to at least make herself heard “and try to sway our decisions as much as I can.”
[Last modified January 10, 2005, 04:36:14]