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Hillsborough school board chairwoman Candy Olson wears many hats

Hillsborough County School Board chairwoman Candy Olson talks with Yazmyn Thornton, 6, Thursday at Mitchell Elementary in Tampa. Olson was visiting staff and students.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Hillsborough County School Board chairwoman Candy Olson talks with Yazmyn Thornton, 6, Thursday at Mitchell Elementary in Tampa. Olson was visiting staff and students.

TAMPA — As chairwoman of the Hillsborough County School Board, Candy Olson is charged with overseeing a budget of close to $3 billion.

There's a workforce of more than 25,000, a seven-member board that doesn't always play nicely, and the needs of 190,000 children.

And that's just for starters.

In July, Olson, 65, took over as chairwoman of the Council of the Great City Schools, a research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., which represents more than 60 urban school districts.

She's also president of the Hillsborough County Homeless Coalition, which coordinates nearly $7 million of federal, state and local resources for the county's homeless residents and is searching for a new executive director.

"And I'm sure she's doing more than that," said April Griffin, Olson's vice chairwoman on the school board.

This is Olson's third time as chairwoman of the School Board, which she joined in 1994.

Before that she was a stockbroker and finance and planning manager for DACCO, the anti-drug abuse organization; and an active community volunteer.

Olson got involved with Great City Schools about 10 years ago, she said, attracted to the organization because it draws from both superintendents and school board members, and because she finds its focus on urban issues applicable to Hillsborough.

"We all have high concentrations of poverty and people who are new to this country," she said.

The Hillsborough district called on Great City Schools in its overhaul several years ago of the bus system. "They bring in experts who do it in other school districts. They're about solutions."

It has not been an easy year for Olson on the School Board.

In January, soon after she became chairwoman, conservative activists mobilized a heated response to a Council on American-Islamic Relations spokesman's appearance at a school.

Olson countered their criticism by stating that students need to learn about diverse cultures and that teachers, who are under attack politically, deserve respect.

As the dispute continued into March, some audience members jeered at her remarks.

"My point was, and is, that our best defense against any kind of inappropriate comment is the teacher in the room," she said. "This isn't a problem except for a small number of people."

Her job, she said, is to see the big picture and search for reasonable solutions without pandering. "When people don't have the courage to do that, you get a mess like Congress."

Griffin, who joined the board in 2006, said she has learned from Olson's example. "She's a smart woman who knows how to divide her time," she said. Specifically, she said, "she is very much the kind of leader who likes to put closure to an issue."

Sometimes that's easier said than done.

It was months before Olson could rally the board to agree on a resolution that asked the state to address its chaotic system of standardized tests, which ultimately passed 6-1. Olson wanted it to be a unanimous vote, but member Stacy White preferred his own resolution.

She shrugged off the slight.

"My work is so rewarding when I spend time with kids and their teachers," Olson said. "That compensates for the other stuff.

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

Hillsborough school board chairwoman Candy Olson wears many hats 09/22/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 22, 2012 4:31am]
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