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A race for an open seat on the Escambia County School Board has turned ugly after the apparent frontrunner in the race, Kells Hetherington, lashed out at the former president of the county’s PTA council on social media.

Hetherington, 39, a political newcomer, is facing Ray Guillory and Paul Fetsko in the nonpartisan race for the District 2 school board seat being vacated by Gerald Boone, who is retiring. A July 21-22 Inweekly/Political Matrix poll shows Hetherington leading the three-man race with 25 percent of the vote, though more than 40% of respondents said they didn’t know the candidates or were undecided.

One of Hetherington’s comments made on Facebook Wednesday. (Special to The Pulse)

In numerous Facebook comments made Wednesday, Hetherington attacked PTA volunteer Michelle Salzman over her stint as an exotic dancer two decades ago and claimed that she has “enthusiastically endorsed” Paul Fetsko, one of Hetherington’s two opponents for the seat. Salzman is the immediate past president of the Escambia County Council of PTAs, a regional umbrella organization for parent teacher associations.

Salzman said Thursday that she hasn’t endorsed anyone in the race, noting that the PTA is hosting a candidate forum Thursday evening, which Hetherington has declined to attend. Salzman said that while she has helped organize the event, she hasn’t chosen any of the questions that candidates will be asked, aside from one: “Are you a member of a PTA?”

“The debate is being organized and hosted by Michelle Salzman who has bragged publicly about her favorite job being a stripper,” Hetherington wrote in a comment made Wednesday on an offshoot of Escambia Citizens Watch, a popular local Facebook group. In another comment, Hetherington referred to Fetsko as “the guy who has been bankrupt and is now palling around with strippers.”

Late Wednesday evening, Salzman addressed Hetherington’s comments in a Facebook post of her own.

“Twenty years ago, I was without a home, money and hope,” Salzman wrote. “I had two kids and nothing else. Yes I was a dancer at Sammy’s. Twenty years ago. I am not ashamed of who I am, where I came from nor where I am! You have a problem with a mother of two children trying to make money to stay off the streets, welfare, and public assistance?”

Salzman worked as a dancer at Sammy’s Gentlemen’s Club in Pensacola in the early 2000s, a job she says allowed her to put herself through college, buy a house, and provide for two young children as a single mother. Salzman is also a veteran of the U.S. Army and has since worked as human relations specialist, marketing consultant, and as the co-owner of a photography business, among other roles.

“He can use my scars as his punchline, that is just fine,” wrote Salzman. “I’m not afraid of him, his words, nor his hate.”

Mr. Hetherington was reached by a reporter for this story but declined to comment.

Hetherington a newcomer to Pensacola

Hetherington and his wife Alison. (Special to The Pulse)

Hetherington, 39, a native of Connecticut, is a graduate of Manhattanville College in New York. An independent financial analyst, Hetherington previously worked as an editor at the online news site The Daily Caller and as the manager of a National Public Radio station in Alaska.

Hetherington and his wife Allison were married in Washington, D.C. last June, according to a wedding announcement in the New York Times, after which they moved to Pensacola. Hetherington filed to run for the District 2 school board seat on April 27 of this year. All $4,450 his campaign has raised has come from himself, his wife, and their respective parents.

Beyond his own political race, Hetherington has also aligned himself with challenger Alan McMillan in the often-heated campaign for the District 2 seat on the Escambia County Commission. In April, both McMillan’s campaign and “Escambia Citizens for Better Government” — a political action committee connected to the McMillan campaign — made $2,500 payments to Hetherington for “research consulting.”

Escambia has anti-bullying policy

Some of those who criticized Hetherington’s comments on Facebook pointed to the Escambia County School District’s policy against bullying and harassment.

“The policy of the Escambia County School District is that all of its students and employees have an educational setting that is safe, secure, and free from harassment and bullying of any kind,” the policy reads. “The district will not tolerate bullying and harassment of any type.”

The district’s definition of bullying includes threats, intimidation, and public humiliation, among other criteria, and the district defines harassment as “any threatening, insulting, or dehumanizing gesture, use of data or computer software, or written, verbal or physical conduct.”

Opponents denounce Hetherington’s comments

In separate statements, opponents Paul Fetsko and Ray Guillory denounced Hetherington’s comments.

“I am sorry that this community is having to endure such negativity,” said Fetsko. “This campaign should be about improving the Escambia County School District. Mrs. Salzman has been an example of doing everything for children. Let’s focus on the future, not on dredging up the past to disrespect and embarrass for political positioning. My wife and I will pray for the candidate from Connecticut.”

“I am deeply saddened by this happening in our school board race,” said Guillory. “We should be focusing on issues and the needs of our students and parents. I cannot believe that someone wanting a role in public leadership would attack a longtime volunteer that has done so much to make our community better. A school board member should set an example for our children. Anyone who would engage in this type of behavior, attacking a mother this way, shouldn’t be in any position to influence children. I applaud Mrs. Salzman’s strength in not only succeeding as a successful single mother, but in taking Mr. Hetherington head on. I am sorry that this happened to her. It’s hard to find people as dedicated as Mrs. Salzman and I hope Mr. Hetherington’s action will not dissuade others from getting involved in civic affairs. I am calling on all candidates and elected officials to condemn this behavior and agree to stick to issues and keep their campaigns civil.”

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