TAMPA — School Board races are usually tame affairs. The position is nonpartisan, the candidates are generally polite, and everyone likes to say they're doing it for the kids.
But one race this year is failing in the niceness department.
The District 1 race pitting incumbent Susan Valdes against challenger Dave Schmidt has become almost too much for some people to bear. Each week, it seems, brings a new set of complaints by Schmidt against Valdes, who is seeking her second term representing West Tampa and parts of northwest Hillsborough.
"It's very sad," said School Board member Candy Olson. "We're supposed to be about helping children to learn and helping teachers to teach and this is a distraction."
But then she added: "Sometimes the ugliness is because of real issues. And it's the case here."
Among Schmidt's charges: Valdes has traveled excessively and needlessly on the taxpayer's dime; that she has made more than 13 hours of personal phone calls on her district-issued cell phone; that she accepted a campaign contribution from a direct competitor of the school district.
"She does not respect the office that she holds, and she has broken the trust of the citizens that elected her," Schmidt said. "I think it's my responsibility as a candidate to make sure that voters understand these issues."
Valdes spent $50,000 in public money traveling in Hillsborough and beyond over the last four years, at least double the bill of any other board member. She contends her colleague encouraged her to take several of the trips and said she brought back valuable ideas to the district.
The School Board hopes to make a decision soon about setting travel limits for its members, and Valdes has since reimbursed the district for her phone calls. She submitted a check to the district in the amount of $404.40, along with a letter of apology.
"The oversight was completely my mistake, and I take full responsibility for it," she wrote. "I regret and apologize for letting down school system personnel and my constituents."
Schmidt also said many of the calls were made to fellow board member April Griffin and wondered how much board business was discussed privately between the two, which is illegal.
"April and I have been friends for many, many years," Valdes said. "(But) the issue has been quashed and handled."
Schmidt also has criticized Valdes for accepting a $500 contribution from the Manhattan Hairstyling Academy, which competes against the district's technical and adult academies.
Valdes said she has been personal friends with the owner for years and did not see anything wrong with it. She then turned the tables.
"(Schmidt) accepted a contribution from the superintendent's husband," she said. "Now that is a conflict of interest."
Schmidt argued that the contribution to Valdes came from the academy, not from the owner personally. And he accepted $500 from Albert Elia, the superintendent's husband, because he considered it a contribution from a private citizen.
Valdes, who ran against Schmidt's wife, Janice Torgerson, four years ago, said it is unfortunate that Schmidt keeps focusing on her instead of his own campaign and what he has to offer.
"This race is getting out of hand," she said. "It's a darn shame that we put politics in the education of our children. I will continue to focus on what we need to do for our students. That's my approach."
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 269-5312 or [email protected]