[EXCLUSIVE] Interview with Palm Beach County School Board Member Erica Whitfield

Erica+Whitfield+spent+the+morning+with+us+discussing+the+school+board+and+her+role+in+it.

Tameka Robinson

Erica Whitfield spent the morning with us discussing the school board and her role in it.

It’s not easy to run a school, as Erica Whitfield proved when she accepted an interview to sit down with The Tribe to tell us about her work on the School Board of Palm Beach County. 

Whitfield has been on the board for the past eight years, and she just recently won her re-election campaign back in August, winning 68% of the vote. Ironically, she happens to be the only member on the school board that actually has children in the school district, one being fifteen and another being just two.

She’s someone who has always wanted to be active in the community, volunteering in multiple places and associations before ultimately ending up on the school board. 

“I tried to join everything I could,” she tells us. “I like community building.”

She was thinking of running for some sort of position, but she didn’t know a significant position like the school board was ever going to fall in her lap. She didn’t want to run against an incumbent, someone who is currently holding a seat because then she would have to try and prove that they were not doing something right and there needed to be a change. She wanted to run for an open seat; the school board just happened to be the first one open. 

This isn’t something she regrets though. “It really does fit me perfectly; schools are the center of everything.”

This may technically be a part-time job, but she goes above and beyond in order to provide for Palm Beach County students and the community as a whole. Going to school for public health, she has experience and knowledge that allow her to do her job as efficiently as possible. 

We opened up our discussion by talking about the current political climate of the education system and how exponentially harder it’s gotten for her to do her job. 

“Everything you do is questioned,” Whitfield tells us. “You’re under such a microscope.” 

She told us that not many people would come to the board meetings the district would hold, but people have started to show up in order to argue with the elected officials like Whitfield about how she is or isn’t using her role. COVID has made this small group extremely loud, and it has affected the trust the community has in the school board.

Even though an elected position like hers is supposed to be completely nonpartisan, it’s clearly getting harder to keep it that way. Her opponents have called her many names and have accused her of being partisan, someone who strongly supports one side. “My goal is to listen to everybody and not be partisan.” 

This is especially true for both her and everybody else in the school district. When it comes to serious topics that have to be brought up, it takes an entire process before an answer can be reached. 

“When there’s an issue, especially a sensitive topic that we know is going to come up, I’ll have like six meetings on one topic,” she tells us. “Before a board meeting, I’ve had tons of meetings where I sit down with the Chief of Staff, the Deputy Superintendent, and our Chief Operating Officer, and I go through every part of every issue with them and kind of bounce things off of them.”

She feels responsible for the students of Palm Beach County, which is why the district is creating a Student Advisory Council where a student is selected from each school throughout the district where they can run ideas to try and discuss issues and solutions going on inside schools. 

Something that Erica Whitfield is scared of is having someone that didn’t know how the school board works be a part of it, which is one of the main reasons she ran for re-election again this election season. 

Her opponents are ones who have very strict views on topics such as mental health, sex education, the LGBTQ+ community, and more, which was the next topic of discussion. 

For Whitfield, mental health is a strong priority. She works in a healthcare district, allowing her to push mental health as a topic that should be discussed in schools. She’s part of a board created specifically to talk about these issues in schools. 

The board wants to create a curriculum where schools can talk about mental health at a basic level in high school and then have a place to send someone if it’s discovered that they may need extra help. 

Whitfield also discussed the homelessness and hunger problem that we have with our students. She’s part of backpack programs run in the county that allows hungry children to take food home on weekends so they have a meal to eat when they’re not in school.

This is especially true when she noted the fact that 4,500 kids are considered “homeless” in Palm Beach County, or live with a distant relative, in shelters, or just simply unstable housing. Whitfield also told us that 250 kids in the county live in cars.

These types of programs are important to her because of the kids, but also for school workers such as teachers and bus drivers. She wants to build communities that actually encourage teachers to show up and teach, which includes passing a referendum coming up in this November election. 

The referendum that will show up on the ballot this November is one that allows teachers to get paid more based on how long they’ve been teaching. This isn’t a new tax, this is a renewal of a tax that has been reviewed by an oversight committee. Passing this referendum allows for teachers to get paid more, which in turn allows for teachers to work for the district.

Another topic she feels strongly about is the LGBTQ+ community and how it relates to children in schools, specifically transgender children playing sports. 

“There’s an importance of being accepting of everyone,” Whitfield tells us. She also told us that she made her stance on transgender children playing in sports known during her campaign, which was that she’s not an expert on the topic and that the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) should make the rules. 

But, she does believe that every child should have the chance to play and exercise and no one should take that away from them. 

The district also has a strategic plan of allowing everyone to have an opportunity to take advanced classes, which is something she also wants to see happen. 

“We’re giving everybody a chance,” Whitfield tells us. “We’re asking that every student has an opportunity for high-level classes.”

Statistically, it’s seen that white girls especially have a better chance of being placed in an AP or higher-level course compared to someone like a black boy. The whole point of this program is to allow groups that aren’t always placed in higher courses to allow them to have the experience and get a chance to see if they fit in these courses better. 

Even though there is some skepticism on whether or not it could be done, Whitfield has stated that they have seen progress throughout the board for everyone, having a success rate of 80%. A bulk of the kids in these classes are doing well. 

Now if you think all of this is a lot for one person, you’re absolutely correct. Whitfield tells us jokingly that she has managed her time “badly,” which is something that’s exacerbated by having a toddler in the house. 

“There’s a lot of zoom and phone calls,” she tells us, which allows her to stay with her youngest child. However, multitasking has enabled her to accomplish the lengthy list of things she does daily. All she has to do to keep her toddler entertained is put on a show and get her some snacks; after that, Mrs. Whitfield can get whatever she needs to get done.

She also loves to travel, but between her family and her job, there’s not a lot of time where that can happen. 

In the end, Erica Whitfield is someone who’s passionate about her job and passionate about ensuring that kids do well in school; she quite frankly is the GOAT at what she does.

“Take every opportunity you can get,” she tells us. “Pick your topic, pick your interest, whatever it is, and go find a way to be a leader within that.”

Every opportunity you get can lead to you creating change in the world and in the future.