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Joe Henderson: Candy Olson still has ideas for improving Hillsborough County schools

By Joe Henderson, Special to the Times
Published: March 7, 2018 Updated: March 7, 2018 at 11:08 AM
Former Hillsborough County School Board chairwoman Candy Olson, center, takes part in an interactive song during a music class at Mitchell Elementary in Tampa on Sept. 20, 2012. Olson has since retired from the board. [SKIP O'ROURKE | Times]

Candy Olson served ably on the Hillsborough County School Board for 20 years until she retired in October 2014. She felt simply that two decades was enough, noting then, "Itís time for a new perspective, a new energy."

That may have been true, but sometimes the best new perspective comes from an experienced hand. Thatís one reason she recently shared some ideas over lunch with Superintendent Jeff Eakins, who was not afraid to listen and absorb advice that might help make a better school system.

"The thing I always know about Ms. Olson is that she is always thinking in new ways, things that go outside the box," Eakins said.

With that in mind, Olson suggested eliminating some of the countyís 29 magnet schools. Even though Eakins said last August that he didnít want to do that, he is open to the idea now.

"Itís time to dramatically rethink how we deliver education," Olson said.

Some magnet students board buses around 5 a.m. and can travel 20 miles or more to be at their school on time.

Not surprisingly, she said, that creates discipline issues on buses, which leads to suspensions, which defeats the purpose of magnets ó not all magnet schools, obviously, but some.

"If you stopped busing so many kids to magnets, maybe there wouldnít be a driver shortage and you could save money," she said.

The Tampa Bay Times reported last year that magnet school busing has a yearly average cost of $1,248 per student vs. $703 for standard bus riders.

This is not an attack on all magnet schools, not at all. As Eakins pointed out, there are waiting lists at schools offering music, arts and International Baccalaureate programs.

"But," he said, "as the county population continues to sprawl, some people are seeing the distance (to a magnet school) as not an option. So, the question becomes, how do we better regionalize our offerings and align them with needs of families?"

Olson had an idea about that.

Put together a group of business, education and political leaders to speak with teachers and identify things "that have nothing to do with student success," she suggested.

"Weíve been asking teachers to do more and more with less and less," she said. "What was a good idea 20 years ago might not be a good idea now. Think about big things that no longer deliver. Consider redrawing school boundaries to help cut transportation costs and bring parents and students closer to their schools."

That last idea has merit but is complicated and can be controversial, especially when a family learns a student will be pulled from one school and placed in another because of the new boundary.

It is the kind of issue Olson grappled with on the board for 20 years. Does it sound like she is thinking of running for something again?

"Nope," she said. "Not interested. Iíve done my time."

She basically is a full-time grandmother now and wasnít lobbying for a particular cause by meeting with Eakins, other than the one she always raises her hand to support ó the welfare of more than 200,000 Hillsborough public school students and those who teach them.

She was just offering ideas. Eakins is wise to consider them.

Given the issues of money shortages, politics, spats with the union and the daily problems of running a school system this large, itís sometimes easy to forget that there are encouraging signs.

It starts in the classroom.

"The graduation rate has improved significantly in the last couple of years and the people who havenít gotten enough credit for that are the teachers," Olson said.

"If you want to keep on improving that rate, you have to focus on things that help kids. Thatís not forms. Itís not politics. Itís teachers. Only teachers."