SEFFNER — With less than a week until Tuesday's election, candidates for the Hillsborough County School Board were playing it safe Wednesday night during a forum at Armwood High School.
How safe? At one point, an audience member asked each candidate to talk about an issue on which he or she disagreed with the opponent. No one bit.
"I think everyone has given sensible answers to the questions," offered pharmacist Stacy White, who faces former principal Richard Bartels in the District 4 race in eastern Hillsborough.
"We've spent the last four months together, and I really like everyone," added preschool owner Sally Harris, who is nonetheless trying to bump incumbent April Griffin from her countywide seat in District 6.
About 25 people turned out for the forum, which was sponsored by the Hillsborough County Council PTA/PTSA.
Those in the audience heard little disagreement on the hot-button issues that have faced the board in recent months.
All four candidates said they opposed over-use of standardized tests like the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, and all said the district has crossed the line by encouraging too many unprepared students to take Advanced Placement courses.
They agreed on the need to reduce the number of early-release days in the calendar from the current dozen, though they differed on just how to do so.
White said the large number of days were "just a waste of resources and dollars," and argued for consolidating them. Bartels suggested using a portion of the district's federal Race to the Top money to "hire our teachers for three days" of focused planning time.
Harris, meanwhile, suggested moving such days from Wednesdays to Fridays. Griffin warned that could lead to higher absenteeism.
"Realize it is going to cost us $12 million if we combine all 12 days into 6 full (planning) days," Griffin added, saying she was nevertheless interested in the idea.
Both she and Bartels said their experience — she as a board member, he as a longtime district employee — would make them more effective on the board.
And both White and Harris said their experience as parents and PTA officers gave them a crucial outsider's view.
Near the conclusion of the forum, an audience member asked what single thing separated the candidates from their opponents. And this time there was no hesitation.
"The single most important reason is because I have three young children in the system," White said.
"I hit the ground running as a School Board member," Bartels countered. "There's no learning curve."
Harris said her former work in the district as an occupational specialist and parent advocate would make the difference. "I'm not from the top down, I'm from the bottom up," she said.
And Griffin said it came down to character and her record of making waves on the board, or as she put it: "My courage to ask the tough questions and continue to ask the tough questions."
Tom Marshall can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400.