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Column: Hey Hillsborough, ease up — it's graduation, not a cattle auction

Identical twins Joshua and Christopher Andrade talk before the Gaither High School graduation ceremony at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa on June 6. [EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times]

Identical twins Joshua and Christopher Andrade talk before the Gaither High School graduation ceremony at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa on June 6. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]

The first time we weren't ready.

We talked my father into flying in from Philadelphia, though he had just undergone cancer surgery and was anxious about crowds.

But our daughter was graduating from Gaither High School.

There we were with three grandparents total, all past 70 and none in good health.

And there was security, prodding us the second it was over into a hot parking lot where cars piled up and hundreds of people were taking pictures.

What a letdown, my husband and I thought. No time to linger, to mingle, to say goodbye.

Anyone who has been to a graduation in Hillsborough County can tell you about the bum's rush. Out you go, whether the sun is beating down or it's raining or, if you get the late slot, it's pitch dark as you weave your car around kids in blue robes.

I'm told years ago, they rolled the dice on the weather and graduated on the football fields. But as the district grew bigger and more bureaucratic, as with so many other things, graduations were centralized.

Half were at the University of South Florida Sun Dome, half at the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall. When the Sun Dome was under renovation, the district moved all graduations to the fairgrounds. They saved on rent. (Note: While the state fair authority talks of giving the district a discount, it recoups some of the money in $5 parking fees.)

Clearly the arrangement works for district officials who sit on one stage all day while the graduation groups come and go, one after another, four a day. Good for them but not so good for their customers — us.

I said this to board member Candy Olson at the meeting following my daughter's graduation, where they gushed about how beautiful it all was.

She said one reason they empty the hall quickly is security. There was chatter one year about retaliation after someone was gunned down at a party.

Fast-forward to this year, when my son walked.

My father had more health problems, so he stayed back while mom made the trip alone. My mother-in-law, who has crippling arthritis, fretted for months about how she would get around.

We arrived at 8:30 a.m. It was already hot, but we couldn't get near the door. People pushed and shoved. The guards kept us back.

When we finally got in, and I led my mother-in-law to the wheelchair area, she was ordered around by one of the red-shirted security employees. They wanted her to sit behind a trash can. She tried to tell them she can't get up by herself. By then I was gone. I was helping my 76-year-old mom climb up a long staircase to the bleachers and then down the levels, with no railing, to our seats.

When it was over, another mob scene. My husband needed to use the restroom. He was told he couldn't. My mother-in-law inched toward the door, painfully with her walker. A red-shirt said that door was for graduates. He pointed to another door farther away. "Don't you see that this is a disabled person?" I asked. He didn't care.

From the tape roping us off from the stage to the way the guards glared at us and obstructed our view, it all made us feel unwelcome. I mean, air travel is more pleasurable.

I followed up back at work with a public records request for 10 days of emails to School Board members. There were students who were short credits and couldn't graduate, and internal emails about a traffic jam caused by a Zac Brown concert. That event, following a heavy rain, delayed the Brandon High graduation by 20 minutes.

But no one complained about elderly guests treated like cattle. Correct that, it's the fairgrounds. Cattle are treated better.

I did, however, share my concerns with two board members when they asked why in the world I was reading their emails. That prompted a call from Terri Longphee, the fair authority's marketing director.

I told her everything. To her credit, she fell on her sword. "You're right, it's unacceptable," she said. "That's crazy that you can't go to the restroom."

She said one of the red-shirts was fired because of a complaint. Another email search showed he swore at a parent ("take your a-- back!") and posed for a picture.

Longphee thanked me for my feedback. "We're not going to be any better if we don't know," she said. "You only graduate once."

Executive director Charles Pesano admitted, "It can be a tight turnaround." Staffers need 30-40 minutes between graduations to clean up, rearrange chairs and change the lights to reflect the next school's colors.

The school district is responsible for the schedule, he said. And that $5 parking? It's $1 under the usual rate. But, he said, "We appreciate our long-term relationship with the School Board."

So, to make these events more enjoyable, officials are asking Live Nation not to schedule concerts on graduation nights. They're in ongoing talks with their security firm. And they're offering the district a couple of more days for graduations, free except for maybe air conditioning and cleaning costs, to spread them out to three a day.

It's too soon to say if these changes will happen. If they do, graduates of 2015, you're welcome.

If they don't, please call me.

Marlene Sokol covers the Hillsborough County school system for the Tampa Bay Times. She can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@tampabay.com.

Column: Hey Hillsborough, ease up — it's graduation, not a cattle auction 06/17/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 17, 2014 10:57pm]
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