TAMPA — Election season won't be here for months, but candidates are already lining up to challenge incumbents for three seats on the Hillsborough County School Board.
Four candidates have filed papers for the District 6 countywide seat currently held by April Griffin, while incumbents Candy Olson and Jennifer Faliero face opponents in single-member Districts 2 and 4, respectively.
Voting won't start until the Aug. 24 primary and the general election on Nov. 4 for those who qualify by paying a fee or collecting signatures, but the campaigning has already begun.
April Griffin says her first term on the board shows she can hold district staff accountable. She said the county needs a board member with her knowledge and experience to oversee the district's $100 million teacher effectiveness grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
"I think I'm definitely the person to do that, because I've never been a person to hesitate to ask the questions, either privately or publicly," Griffin said.
Griffin, 40, said she was proud of the role she played in averting teacher layoffs and reducing administrative costs. She plans to continue advocating for students who aren't getting services such as health care for which they qualify.
"We've got to maintain that career and technical pathway for kids," she added. "I don't believe we need a country full of college educated people."
Challenger Terry Kemple said the board has done an inadequate job of explaining what it does and its spending.
"The perception of a lot of people is the School Board is a status quo body," he said. "Just a rubber stamp."
A Brandon resident and president of the Christian-oriented Community Issues Council, the 63-year-old Kemple led a 2008 effort to ban gay marriage in Florida. He said he's running to make the school district more transparent, and to focus on basics such as graduation rates and spending.
He said board members seem to approve even major items like the $100 million Gates grant without much public discussion. To the average citizen, it's not clear whether the district is gambling or following proven reforms, he said.
Scott David Barrish, a 33-year-old private security officer from Riverview, is also focused on financial accountability. He said administrative salaries in some departments are inflated, and the district should spend more on instruction than it does on facilities.
Barrish earned a bachelor's degree in social work from the University of South Florida in 2007, and serves on the county's Children's Services Advisory Board.
He said he has a strong grasp of child development issues and a "passion for education," and also hopes to apply his expertise in security issues to prevent bullying and assault incidents at schools.
"There should be no reason why they can't secure their campuses," he said.
John T. Mattox, 60, taught science in the Hillsborough County schools for more than three decades before his 2008 retirement. Now he wants to get involved in the district at a policymaking level.
He said he's not opposed to reforms connected to the Gates Foundation or the federal Race to the Top competition, but he's troubled by changes he's seen in classrooms. Students are learning less about their society and ways to apply what they're learning, he said.
"I have some problems with the way they're trying to redefine teaching," Mattox said. "I don't want to see teachers just handing out worksheets, to give credit for that."
Mitchell Smithey, 36, works as a classroom aide at Lutz Elementary School, where his wife teaches kindergarten. They have two children.
He said the district is pushing teachers too hard with divisive Gates reforms like peer review and merit pay, which might push the district beyond its financial means. If elected, Smithey said he would promote stronger career and technical tracks for students.
"We're going to prepare them for a career they're interested in and they enjoy doing," he said. "You don't have to have a college degree to have a comfortable living."
Incumbent Candy Olson hasn't formally launched her re-election campaign for the seat she's held since 1994. But she left little doubt that she will enter the race.
"I would like to be part of this effort we began many years ago, and I would like to see it come to fruition," she said, referring to goals like boosting teacher skills and readying students for college-level work.
Olson, 62, said she was proud of the district's successes in raising student achievement and finding money through the Gates grant for new efforts like peer mentoring. She said she'd do her best to monitor spending and represent her constituents' interests, both in public settings and behind the scenes.
"If you want to be effective, you have to worry less about how you look and more about how it gets done in the best way," Olson said.
District 2 takes in an area of southern Hillsborough from South Tampa to Ruskin.
Her opponent, 18-year-old Emmet Gonzalo Negrete, was until recently one of the students under her charge. He graduated last spring from Robinson High School, and is currently studying political science at the University of South Florida.
Negrete acknowledged that he needs to learn a lot about the district. He didn't know the size of its budget, but said he had already found ways to save up to $5 million. And he said Olson hadn't done an effective job of reaching out to constituents across the district.
"Students are sort of being held back by the system," Negrete said, criticizing the state and federal reforms that force administrators to "massage" student data. "The students don't actually have to make any improvements. It's not really helping them."
Incumbent Jennifer Faliero hopes to win a third term representing eastern Hillsborough County. With the district launching a seven-year cycle of Gates reforms, she said it's no time to be breaking in new leaders.
"It requires someone who understands government accounting, how the electoral process works, understands government funding, understands advocacy," said Faliero, 46.
As a parent of teenagers, she said she's particularly focused on the need for high school reform. And she's prepared to weather the storms that may come with tougher scrutiny of teachers.
"Until the evaluation tools are done, until you start seeing some of those bad teachers terminated, people are going to be naysayers," Faliero said.
But she'll face a challenge from Stacy R. White, a pharmacist and clinical assistant professor at the University of Florida.
White, a 37-year-old parent from Valrico, said he hoped to make the board more accessible to voters. He said the controversy over placing cell phone towers at schools was badly handled, and he was concerned about how quickly the board committed itself to the Gates reforms.
"I feel like we went into that with a lot of unanswered questions," White said. "I would have insisted that we had more questions answered before we moved forward. There was a definite lack of transparency there."
Tom Marshall can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400.