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Both remaining Hillsborough School Board candidates come with controversy

TAMPA — When it comes to at-large school board races, anything can happen.

A candidate who's spoofed on the Web for conservative views can land in a runoff election.

And a stalwart seeking a sixth term can find herself facing a legitimate November battle.

Terry Kemple, 65, emerged from a crowded field Tuesday with 19 percent of the District 7 vote in Hillsborough County. He pulled largely from precincts near Brandon, where he lives with his wife and has a management consulting business.

He got far less than incumbent Carol Kurdell's 36 percent. But he and teacher Michael Weston, who got 17 percent, were struck that Kurdell didn't get more votes despite incumbency and recommendations from both major newspapers.

"I believe there's a mood out there that says that Mrs. Kurdell has been there long enough," said Kemple, who raised $35,000 and is confident he can bring in more.

Kurdell, 67, said she isn't worried, even though she raised far less at $13,000. Voters know her, she said. They know her experience goes back to her years in the PTA, where she rose to the rank of county council president.

"The heart of it all is children's advocacy," she said. "That's it. I want the best for children and I want the best education for children."

The South Tampa resident has been in runoffs before and chased away a lot of challengers, most recently college administrator Stephen Gorham in 2008.

This year could be different.

For one thing, a number of teachers — no one can say for certain how many — are unhappy with their treatment under the Gates-funded Empowering Effective Teachers project.

Weston estimates that 4,000 of his 17,600 votes came from teachers and their families. "I visited about 12 precincts, and at every single one there was one or more teacher who said, 'Mike, I'm here to vote for you,' " he said.

Kurdell is heavily involved in EET, a collaboration with the teachers' union that relies partly on peer evaluations. She had the backing of the Hillsborough Classroom Teacher's Association and contributions from several union officers.

The district contends its 15,000 teachers are getting used to the process and find it far better than the old system, which relied solely on principals' assessments.

"I think there are some teachers unhappy with EET, and I would not hazard a guess as to how many," Kurdell said. But state law now requires all districts to adopt similar performance-based measures. "Now that it's the law, there is no going backward. It's important that we move forward together."

Both candidates said they are taking a few days off before formulating their plans for Nov. 6.

If some teachers reject Kurdell out of dissatisfaction with EET, their alternative will be a man who campaigned in the past against same-sex marriage and wants to see parental consent before a student can join the Gay-Straight Alliance.

He has called for better monitoring of EET spending, and more board oversight over grant spending in general.

Kemple offended many educators this year with his drive to ban the Council on American-Islamic Relations from schools. Candidates Robert McElheny and Carl Kosierowski also called for a better vetting of classroom speakers, citing the CAIR example. Some of their votes, which added up to 18 percent, could now go to Kemple.

At the same time, CAIR executive director Hassan Shibly is watching the election closely and could rally Muslims and progressive Christians to support Kurdell.

"As a nonprofit organization, we cannot support or oppose any political candidate," Shibly said. "But as executive director of CAIR and a private individual, I want people to be educated so they can vote for the person who best reflects their beliefs. This is not something they should take for granted."

The Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, said Kemple represents a well-organized, but very specific segment of the religious community.

"We have a minority point of view arguing that another minority should not have access to the schools," he said.

"But this community is a lot more secular and diverse than his group might like to admit."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@tampabay.com.

Both remaining Hillsborough School Board candidates come with controversy 08/15/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 16, 2012 12:00am]
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