TAMPA — A few years ago, Henry Ballard Jr. managed a program in the Hillsborough County School District that won awards for granting contracts to minority businesses.
Now he's a politician, seeking to unseat a School Board member and educator with nearly a half-century of experience.
It's that kind of campaign year.
Four Hillsborough County School Board incumbents are being challenged, including three strong supporters of superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
The fourth, Town 'N Country renegade Susan Valdes, is opposed by a sometime politician who holds a school district contract.
Issues include student test scores, teacher evaluations and the balance of power between Elia and the board.
"The public wants fresh faces, board members that will challenge the district administration to do what is right for our children's future," said Michael Weston, a high school math teacher who is opposing Carol Kurdell for an at-large seat.
Kurdell, a board member for the past 20 years, has by far the most competition.
Her field includes Carl Kosierowski, a bus driver who wants to improve conditions for fellow drivers; Robert McElheny, a car dealer who pledges to bring more business sense to the board; and Weston, a second-year teacher who is disappointed by the Gates-funded Empowering Effective Teachers program.
Also in that race is Terry Kemple, a Christian activist who is leading a movement to ban classroom visits from the Council on American-Islamic Relations; and Joseph Robinson, an engineer who takes issue with the district's business practices. Prone to impassioned statements, Robinson was removed from the April 10 board meeting after he chanted a campaign slogan.
"It's all about the superintendent," Robinson said when asked how much of a factor Elia is in his candidacy. "The board believes they work for her."
Kurdell is, indeed, a strong supporter of Elia. She awarded the superintendent the highest possible number of points — 45 — in her evaluation last summer.
Incumbents Jack Lamb and Doretha Edgecomb also rated Elia highly, at 44 and 42 points, respectively. Both face challengers who hope to shake things up.
Cindy Stuart, a PTA officer in northern Hillsborough, is opposing Lamb in District 3 on issues that include work conditions for teachers. A graduate of Leto High School, Stuart has been campaigning for close to two years. She has spent the most money of any school board candidate, $6,415 as of March 31.
Ballard, who retired last year as the district's manager of minority business enterprise, says he is better suited than Edgecomb to represent the interests of the largely minority District 5. "I can't accept the grades that I see kids getting," he said.
But Ballard also has a personal grievance. Before retiring, he asked the district to evaluate his job, as he felt he was underpaid. The review never happened, so Ballard filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in which he alleged racial discrimination. School officials say the complaint was dismissed.
Unlike the three other incumbents facing opposition, Valdes is often an oppositional voice on the board. She gave Elia the lowest rating at 25 points. This past year she has complained vociferously about the district's contracting practices, and frequently votes against contracts on principle.
Valdes' opponent in District 1, author and hair stylist Eddy Calcines, is, himself, a contractor. His Faro At-Risk Youth Program, funded for $22,000 this past school year, helps ninth-grade male students at Spoto High School work on self-esteem and self-respect. Calcines said he re-invested some of that money into the community through scholarships and neighborhood events.
The remaining incumbents on the seven-member board are safe for the next two years: Candy Olson, a longtime South Tampa member who generally votes with the majority; April Griffin, an at-large member who sometimes challenges Elia; and Stacy White, an east Hillsborough conservative who has emerged as one of Elia's most vocal critics.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org.