TAMPA — Black Girl Speaks, the writing and self-esteem program that sparked a debate about contracting on the Hillsborough County School Board, was renewed Tuesday after students, teachers and administrators came forward in strong support.
"She is phenomenal," said Blake High School principal Jacqueline Haynes, referring to performance artist Talitha Anyabwele, who runs the federally funded program. "She has that 'it' factor that all educators should aspire to."
Last month, School Board member Susan Valdes aired concerns about the program based on complaints from a constituent. When she examined the contracts, she found signatures were missing and questions were left blank. Since 2009, the program has been paid $150,000 from federal Title 1 antipoverty funds.
Asked to investigate, deputy superintendent Ken Otero found that although there were glitches in the contracts, Anyabwele did what she promised. She produced her show for the students, met with some of them in workshops, organized poetry events and served as a mentor and advocate.
"I can't think of anyone who can duplicate her services for young girls," said Cathy Wiggins Waters, a student intervention specialist at Middleton High.
Cassidy Hinton, 19, recited a poem and then said, "Black Girl Speaks helped me to find my speaking voice, to know who I am and where I want to go."
This year's $35,000 contract passed unanimously after Anyabwele commended her students for speaking out "as they were instructed to do, as they have been implored to do."
The program runs in two schools, and school officials select the girls who participate in it.
Valdes assured Anyabwele and her supporters that her complaint was not about the program, but the way contracts were filled out. She said the administration, including superintendent MaryEllen Elia, cannot afford to be sloppy with contracts.
"They are our tax dollars," she said. "Not just mine, not just yours. It's all of our money."
But those larger issues of how contracts are awarded, evaluated and monitored were left unresolved. Board members agreed they should take it up at a future workshop, but no date was set.
Also Tuesday, the board agreed to spend more than $10 million to help school district employees recoup some of what they are losing out of paychecks under a state law that requires them to contribute 3 percent of their pay to a state retirement plan.
The district will pay administrators and most teachers $750 each — $500 in November and $250 in May — at a total cost of $9,922,636 for teachers and $526,976 for administrators.
National Board Certified teachers will get two payments of $500 each. Support employees will receive $400 in November, at a district cost of $961,863.
Deputy superintendent Dan Valdez said the money will come from savings the district has realized in numerous ways, including holding vacancies open for months and simply turning off lights to save electricity.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org.