TAMPA — In the run-up to Tuesday's primaries, Hillsborough County School Board candidates attacked the Common Core curriculum. They complained about the Bill Gates-funded teacher evaluation system. They expressed opinions of superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
The reality is that the board can't stop the state from imposing its version of Common Core. Performance-based teacher evaluations are also set in state law, although Hillsborough's approach is unique.
And as for Elia, she has a three-year contract that is rolled over every year if her performance is considered satisfactory, and it was just recently renewed.
What the candidates who ultimately win three School Board seats can directly influence, however, is how they work with the other members — and whether that body can emerge from a year of bickering that detracted from the work of running the nation's eighth-largest school district.
"I'm sad for the public image," candidate Sally Harris said in a recent interview. "If you see a board fighting, how much respect do you really have?"
After Tuesday's primaries, six candidates are headed to three runoff races on Nov. 4.
"If we all got along 100 percent of the time, people would be questioning that, too," said board member Cindy Stuart, who is not up for re-election this year. "But there needs to be a healthy level of professionalism when we disagree. Unfortunately, we lose that sometimes."
Even Elia, in her self-evaluation, said she needs to improve communication with board members.
Because of the rancor, "People who have to get the work done every day look at their leaders and say, 'What's going on here? Am I at risk?' " said member Candy Olson, who will step down in November.
Candidate Terry Kemple, a conservative Christian activist who maintains that his positions against gay rights and Muslim advocacy are actually closer to the mainstream, faces insurance agent Melissa Snively in eastern Hillsborough's District 4.
Though he's been a lightning rod for controversy, Kemple said he can work with people who don't agree with him. He argued successfully for a place on the county's diversity advisory council, for example, although he did not think the council should exist.
In countywide District 6, incumbent April Griffin famously clashed this year with Elia and Elia's supporters on the board. There were arguments over when to schedule votes. When Elia arranged focus groups to look into student transportation problems, Griffin said she didn't trust the process.
Griffin defended her record, saying she and fellow members Susan Valdes and — to some extent — Stuart have tried to maintain a balance of power between Elia and the board.
No one holds Olson, Elia or Chairwoman Carol Kurdell accountable for their roles in the disharmony, she said. The timing of board votes became an issue, she said, when they were scheduled to benefit the majority.
"No one is looking into that," she said. "I am doing what I said I was going to do: ask the tough questions and hold the administration accountable. I am not going to apologize for that."
But some of Griffin's opponents in the primary called for a board that is more congenial.
Dipa Shah, who took second place and continues to the runoff, said the dynamic makes it hard to help Elia, whom she admires, to improve her performance.
"I think there's a lot of opportunity for better direction and better guidance," Shah said. "But you get to a point where you're just stuck."
In the event that both Griffin and Kemple win election, there could be more friction. The two were rivals for Griffin's seat in 2010. And Griffin took strong offense in 2012 when Kemple led a movement to ban campus visits from the Council on American Islamic Relations. At the time, she called him a hatemonger.
"Terry and April are so good at getting attention," Olson said. "But they are not good at getting things done, in my view."
Less confrontational is Michelle Shimberg, the front-runner in South Tampa's District 2. She faces Harris, who got about half as many votes in the primary and raised about a tenth as much money.
Harris said she can serve as a mediator when members disagree. Teacher Michael Weston, who came in a close third in that race, asked his voters to give their support to Harris, saying Shimberg is too loyal to Elia.
But Shimberg said she has stood up to Elia before and will do so on the board.