TAMPA — Picture a glass half full. Or is it half empty? It's hard to tell with this year's Hillsborough School Board races.
Only two of the four board members up for re-election drew challengers. But the competitors are serious candidates for an office that tends to draw political ingenues.
Sixteen-year veteran Carol Kurdell faces two opponents in a countywide race. One of them, Stephen Gorham, has picked up key endorsements from the unions representing teachers and blue-collar workers in Hillsborough.
Gorham honed his campaign skills in a closer-than-expected race against Ronda Storms for a state Senate seat in east Hillsborough. He says personal interests drew him to the School Board. His wife teaches sixth-grade math at Mann Middle School, and his older daughter is starting kindergarten.
His top issues include reining in the superintendent's authority and beefing up security at schools.
"It's time to bring some debate and fresh ideas to the table," said Gorham, 29, an administrator at Hillsborough Community College. "My opponent has been there for 16 years. If she was going to do something, she would have already done it."
Kurdell, 63, sees her work as far from finished and wants a fifth term. She touts accomplishments like technology updates and an ongoing overhaul of the school busing operation. She calls her experience invaluable during a tough budget year.
"It's easy to stand on the outside and look in and say you need to change this. It's not that simple," she said. "It's about relationships. It's about what's relevant today. And I'm certainly still capable of doing that."
The third contender, Jason Mims, 55, has the lowest profile to date. The retired Army lieutenant colonel says he has logged more than 400 hours attending district meetings, where he has pushed for higher academic expectations for inner-city students.
His campaign slogan, "read good books," speaks to his goal for students. He wants to see the district release test score information for ZIP code — not just by school — at a time when many students attend campuses outside their neighborhoods.
"The school can achieve a great grade, but no one from that ZIP code actually participates," he said.
Only voters in District 1, concentrated in northwest Hillsborough, can cast ballots in the other contested School Board race. It pits first-term incumbent Susan Valdes against Dave Schmidt, a program manager in the district's adult education division.
In an unusual twist, Valdes sees herself as the outsider, even after four years in office. Schmidt says his 10 years of experience with the district gives him a better understanding of its operations.
Valdes has pushed against the traditional ways of doing things, at times more bluntly than some colleagues would like. But she has secured endorsements from both the teachers' and blue-collar workers unions.
"I don't always go with the recommendations of the superintendent," she said. "I still ask those questions."
Valdes, 43, wants to continue promoting opportunities for small and minority companies to do business with the district. She is pushing for more foreign language instruction for students.
Schmidt, 59, criticizes Valdes for focusing too much on the Hispanic population and not doing enough for poor schools. He is interested in reviewing how federal funds are spent at high-poverty campuses and greater support for students of all achievement levels.
Schmidt ran unsuccessfully for an open School Board seat two years ago. His wife was a teacher for many years.
"If I am considered an insider, I welcome that title," he said, adding that experience "has given me insights to what teachers need (and) what classrooms need."
Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.