Three campaigns affect schools in Hillsborough

Published October 31 2018
Updated November 1 2018

If you have not yet voted in Hillsborough County, here is a primer on issues that affect the public schools.
First thing to know: The sales tax referendum is the very last item on the ballot, so you will have to go all the way to the fourth page to find it.
“We’re saying things like, ‘vote at the bottom to put you kids at the top,'” said Kim Klace, a county PTA officer and board member for the support group,  Strengthen Our Schools. 
 The school tax campaign follows a dozen recent referendums around the state, all successful. Backers had hoped for more time to mount a campaign. But they lost that option when, in the summer, a state legislative office said it could complete an audit of county transportation agencies in time for the one percent sales tax referendum for road and transit improvements. With school air conditioners breaking down at an alarming pace, the School Board on Aug. 24 voted to pursue the half-cent referendum immediately, and to do so again in March if it failed on the first attempt.
 The tax is expected to raise $131 million annually for 10 years, for a total of $1.31 billion. To ensure widespread support, school district leaders committed to spending at least $500,000 at every school, and released a detailed list of expenditures. An oversight committee is chaired by former University of South Florida president Betty Castor and co-chaired by Sheriff Chad Chronister.
About half the money is earmarked toward air conditioning systems, which suffered as Hillsborough spent less on maintenance than any large Florida district for the last ten years.
The rest of the money will go toward capital needs that include roofs, security and fire safety equipment, classroom technology, playgrounds and four new schools in fast-growing South Hillsborough. It cannot be used for ongoing expenses such as salary.
“When people really understand the story, how did we get here and what it is going to cover and the oversight piece of it, I have very few people who don’t support it,” she said.
“I think our challenge is making sure we’re getting to all those people because I think there are a lot of people who haven’t attended town hall meetings, or read an article or paid attention what is going on at their own schools.”
Proponents of the tax have spread the word at school festivals, PTA and dads club meetings. They’ve made appearances at neighborhood meetings to reach people who are not connected to the schools. “We went to the Sun City Rotary and gave a presentation there,” Klace said.
School Board, District 1: Cona versus Person
Steve Cona III will face Bill Person in the Nov. 6 election for District 1 on the Hillsborough County School Board.

District 1, which covers West Tampa, Town ‘N Country and the Northwest suburbs, will be represented either by an executive for the construction industry or a former School District official who entered the political arena because of a grievance.

This much is clear: The two are raising and spending a lot of money.

Steve Cona, 44, is president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors Florida Gulf Coast Chapter. He also serves as an appointee of Gov. Rick Scott on the board of trustees for Hillsborough Community College.

With a child at Sickles High School — where the air conditioning has been especially unreliable this year — Cona says he wants to bring a business perspective to the district’s budgeting and day-to-day management. He is supported by proponents of privately managed charter schools and he wants to cut down on duplication of programs outside the school system – adult vocational training, for example, which already is offered at institutions such as HCC.

Susan Valdes, a Democrat who is leaving the seat two years early to join the State House, has endorsed the Republican Cona.

But that isn’t surprising, given the origins of this contest.

Cona is running against William Person, 67 and the husband of teacher Laurie Rodriguez. Person also is a retired principal and administrator who led the district’s efforts to create a choice system after the end of court-ordered desegregation.

Person began asking questions around 2015, when Rodriguez and several fellow teachers were about to lose their positions at Erwin Technical College because of a reorganization. One question led to another, many involving Valdes and the administration of Superintendent Jeff Eakins.

Rodriguez kept her job at Erwin through a union grievance.
And Person declared himself a candidate for Valdes’ seat.

The margin in 2016 was razor-thin, with Valdes winning by just 277 votes.  Rodriguez and Person also filed multiple state ethics complaints against Valdes and the administration.

In his current campaign, Person has taken a strong stand against charter schools. As labor unions generally are anti-charter, Person is getting financial backing from numerous labor organizations. These include the teachers union, whose leaders are campaigning for Person simultaneously with their efforts to support Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum.

At last count, Cona and Person had raised $204,657 in combined contributions and spent $114,148.
District 6:  Perez versus Washington
Karen Perez is running against Shake Washington for an at-large seat on the Hillsborough County School Board.



The at-large District 6 race pits a longtime school district employee, now retired, against a social worker who is brand-new to most of the day-to-day issues affecting the large school system.

Henry “Shake” Washington, 69, spent four decades in the system, rising to the rank of high school principal and beyond, and ultimately retiring as area director of a group of mostly urban schools.  His son, also Henry Washington, is an assistant principal at Lennard High School.

Karen Perez, 54, is a Veterans Administration social worker who entered the race shortly before the registration deadline, saying she was moved by children she had met in her private practice to keep children engaged in school and out of the court system.

Much of Washington’s support comes from friends and former employees who have worked with him in the schools. Perez is being helped in the community and on social media by April Griffin, the long-time board member who is leaving the District 6 seat.

In contrast to the six-figure sums in District 1, Washington and Perez have raised a combined $48,206 and spent $38,660.