TAMPA — Followers of Hillsborough County School Board politics — and there's no telling how many there are — say a lot is on the line in the Nov. 6 election.
Carol Kurdell, who joined the board before most of the district's students were born, faces Terry Kemple, a conservative activist who is not shy about stumping on social issues.
But the contest for the at-large District 7 seat is not just a choice between a consummate insider and an aggressive, unapologetic challenger.
Free speech, the standing of Muslims, the board's balance of power and a high-profile education reform effort are all in play.
"I think a lot is at stake," said chairwoman Candy Olson, and make no mistake about where she stands. She finds Kemple disrespectful to women and teachers, and prone to making demands.
What's more, she added, "his issues don't seem to have anything to do with education."
In some ways the two candidates — both in their 60s — could not be more different.
Kurdell, who rose through the ranks of countywide PTA before joining the board in 1992, is known as a nose-to-the-grindstone type who devotes full-time hours to her board position without drawing attention to herself.
That, Olson acknowledged, can be a liability at election time.
Unfailingly supportive of the Gates-funded Empowering Effective Teachers initiative, Kurdell has worked behind the scenes to improve the project, Olson said.
"She is smart enough to recognize that the way you fix things is quietly and in private," Olson said. "You have to give people room to maneuver. You have to go to them quietly. You don't shame them in public."
But what the public sees is a bloc of board members consistently loyal to the administration.
Kemple, a management consultant, said teachers invariably tell him they don't like the new system of evaluations. "Morale is in the pits," he said.
Most School Board members counter that they've heard both positive and negative feedback. Kemple said employees with complaints are afraid to speak out publicly. "What you get are sycophants and shills," he said.
He promises to be neither.
Born in San Diego, Kemple made a name for himself with campaigns against same-sex marriage, bikini bars and holding school on Good Friday.
He announced his candidacy in the midst of a controversy over a school visit from the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
He bested four opponents in the Aug. 14 primary, finishing second to Kurdell to set up a runoff. Kurdell said that night she had won other runoff races before and was confident she'd win this one.
She declined to be interviewed, saying the public should know her by now.
Others close to her are less dismissive of Kemple.
"He's definitely coming across as much more level-headed and moderate than he truly is," said board member April Griffin, who Kemple challenged unsuccessfully in 2010.
People who know where Kemple stands on issues should have no trouble making a choice.
When asked about creationism and evolution, he laughed. "That's not something that can be controlled by local School Boards," he said.
But, he added, "the fact that the state requires us to teach that evolution is the be-all and end-all is a travesty." He said believing in evolution requires just as much faith as religious teachings.
On other issues, such as sex education and gay-straight alliance clubs, Kemple contends the district has far more leeway.
His platform calls for more parental involvement, through outreach efforts and a culture shift to make the district more responsive.
It's earned him the support of Kimberly Kelley, a leader in the local 9/12 Project, formed by media personality Glenn Beck. "They have to start listening to the parents a little bit more," she said.
Kemple's critics say such statements mask a lack of familiarity with education.
"Actions speak louder than words," Griffin said. "And his actions over the years I've been sitting on the School Board have been nothing but conservative, hate-mongering, and very, very one-sided on his issues."
"People who are from a liberal persuasion, when they don't have a response, use a personal attack. On the issues that I've stood for, I've been on the side of the mainstream in our community."
Among the evidence, he cites large numbers of parents who kept their children home when Good Friday was a school day.
"For anyone on the board to say I'm a hatemonger who represents a radical fringe is insulting," he said.
Hassan Shibly, who heads up the Tampa CAIR office, has been a direct target of Kemple. His visit to Steinbrenner High School in November touched off the firestorm that culminated in a shouting match on Sept. 11 on the steps of school district headquarters.
CAIR and Shibly deny they are anti-American, or terrorist sympathizers. Kemple insists he is not against Muslims, just CAIR. But Shibly and Griffin say he has created an atmosphere of intolerance.
The election, Shibly said, "comes down to whether a fear monger and a promoter of bigotry and hatred will win an election. Also, what's at stake is censorship and freedom of education for our students."
While careful not to involve his nonprofit organization in politics, Shibly said, "a lot of individuals within the Muslim community will support an anti-Kemple candidate."
Recent campaign contribution reports show Kurdell has raised $28,000, about half what Kemple has collected.
Much of Kurdell's funding comes from leaders in the local teacher's union — which endorsed her — and other labor organizations.
Kemple's donors include leaders in the Tampa 9/12 Project and the local tea party, along with individuals and businesses in eastern Hillsborough County. The reports show Kemple spending four times as much as Kurdell.
But money does not always mean victory, Olson said, pointing out that newcomer Cindy Stuart unseated the well-funded incumbent Jack Lamb.
Stacy White, the one board member who supports Kemple's efforts, would not hazard a guess as to whether he might win. Nor can he predict what will happen if Kemple joins the board and begins introducing social issues.
"But I will say this," he said. "If he is elected by the people of this community, he has a right to bring ideas to the table as much as any other member. And I believe they owe him the courtesy to at least hear him out."
Staff writer Sue Carlton contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]