Ties on Hillsborough School Board tested by campaigns

TAMPA — One Hillsborough School Board member has thrown her support behind a candidate challenging her elected colleague, a 16-year incumbent.

Three of the four School Board members up for re-election received contributions from the husband of school superintendent MaryEllen Elia. Other top administrators are directly involved in the campaigns to elect their bosses' bosses.

Election season speaks volumes about relationships within the school district. Employees voice their opinions by writing checks. This year, there's a visible split between those seen as outsiders and those viewed as the establishment.

Most extraordinary is board member April Griffin's decision to endorse Stephen Gorham, who is vying for the countywide seat that Carol Kurdell has held for four terms.

"This is not anything personal against Carol Kurdell, but just my belief in Stephen Gorham as someone who can help move this culture change forward," Griffin said. "It's very difficult for people who have been there for a long time and have close relationships to be change agents."

Although she's not running in this election, Griffin said she has been the target of a whisper campaign by district employees. She heard critics also have it out for board member Susan Valdes, a political ally and close friend who is up for re-election.

Griffin feels the dynamic reflects a bias against board members who challenge the status quo. To that end, she sees telling patterns in the campaign contribution records.

Susan Valdes was the only incumbent who did not receive a $500 contribution from Surebet Risk Management Corp., which is run by Albert Elia III, the superintendent's husband.

Albert Elia could not be reached for comment. Last election, he told the Times that he and his wife decided together which candidates to support. This year, MaryEllen Elia said the decision was his alone.

"I personally am not a political person," said Elia, who is appointed by the board. "He makes his own decisions about elections."

Valdes laughed at the notion of the superintendent staying out of politics. But she thought little of not getting a donation from her husband. Valdes noted that she did not give Elia a glowing review.

Valdes also has not received the same level of support as other incumbents from companies with business ties to the district. These include prominent construction, architectural design and engineering firms.

"It just clearly states that we don't run in the same circles," said Valdes, who is seeking a second term. "I'm still the outsider as the incumbent."

Valdes did receive $100 from Griffin, her fellow board member. She also has taken contributions from school principals and other prominent district employees.

But she did not receive a donation from Joseph Kurdell, who is married to Carol Kurdell, Hillsborough's longest-serving board member. He donated $25 to the two other incumbents, Doretha Edgecomb and Jack Lamb, who both were automatically re-elected without competition.

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Carol Kurdell said her husband donates as he pleases and she was not involved in the decisions.

She saw nothing remarkable about receiving financial support from people who are familiar with her track record in the district.

"I'm always delighted to get a contribution from somebody who knows my work and supports me," she said, adding that she is not influenced by donations. "Citizens are free to donate to whomever's campaign they are interested in."

Her competitor sees matters differently.

"It's a conflict of interest if you're taking financial contributions from folks that you're essentially supposed to provide oversight and accountability for," Gorham said.

Gorham would draw a line between the superintendent and top officers and employees not directly in contact with the board. He has not yet filed a campaign finance report, but said his supporters include teachers and school secretaries.

For district employees, the decision to get involved is often personal.

Susan King, the district's magnet supervisor, feels strongly about exercising her rights to participate in elections. She has contributed to the campaigns of incumbents Lamb and Edgecomb, as well as to Dave Schmidt, who is challenging Valdes.

"I would hope that every School Board employee knows that they have a right to support candidates and they have a right to their opinion," said King, who has never felt pressured by elected officials. "This is an important race and affects things they do every day."

The school district's lobbyist, Connie Milito, prefers a policy with little wiggle room. She contributes only to School Board races, and then always supports the incumbent.

"I just like for them to know that I appreciate their time and their work," she said. "In my job, watching elected officials, that's got to be the hardest job in the world."

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Ties on Hillsborough School Board tested by campaigns 07/05/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 10, 2008 7:07pm]

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