WESTCHASE — Hillsborough School Board member Susan Valdes said she cannot trust anyone in the district after she became enveloped in a debate over excessive travel.
"Not one member or superintendent when quoted on the Las Vegas trip stood up and said, 'Wait a minute! We asked her to go.' Not one came up and said, 'This is what we asked this board member to do,'" Valdes said. "So if that's the case, in the future, if they were to ask me to go get an award in wherever, do you think I'm going to trust and say, 'Let me do it?' No."
Those comments came Wednesday during a School Board candidates forum sponsored by the Westchase Government Affairs Committee and WOW, the north Hillsborough community's newsmagazine.
There are two races for Hillsborough County School Board, but the District 1 race pitting Valdes against district administrator Dave Schmidt has drawn the most heat.
Last month, the St. Petersburg Times reported that in the past four years, Hillsborough School Board members spent $150,000 of the public's money for business travel to places such as Alaska and San Francisco.
Valdes ran up a $50,322 travel bill — at least double that of any other board member, including a trip to Las Vegas in 2005 to accept an award on the district's behalf. Schmidt has pummeled her on that, and questioned contributions she accepted from a board member.
Valdes used the forum to challenge Schmidt about his own war chest, which includes a $500 donation from Albert Elia, the husband of his boss, superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
"I took the contributions for two reasons: My opponent took a check from another board member and also her endorsement," he said. "So I don't think there was a conflict there.'' He was just "countering'' her.
The forum also featured District 7 candidates, a countywide seat currently held by Carol Kurdell. She and challengers Stephen Gorham and Jason Mims answered questions about everything from religious holidays to gifted student spending.
The primary is Aug. 26.
Rodney Thrash can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5303.