A trained mediator, Sally Harris has seen herself for the past four years as a peacemaker on a school board known for bitter feuds.
On Tuesday, however, it was 68-year-old Harris who came under attack.
Stacy Hahn, a university professor and administrator with a well-funded campaign and a stated desire to improve the district's schools, turned out the vote and unseated Harris, now the board chairwoman.
Hahn, 51, had more than a 20-point lead over Harris when the ballots were counted Tuesday evening, and a large enough percentage – despite the existence of a third candidate, real estate professional Rod Mayhew – to avoid a runoff on Nov. 6.
Her victory could cost Superintendent Jeff Eakins his strongest ally at a time when two of his other supporters – Susan Valdes and April Griffin – are preparing to leave.
Hahn is Director of Professional Development and Partnerships for the University of South Florida College of Education and Associate Director of the USF-David C. Anchin Center.
She received contributions from school choice advocates. Her campaign survived allegations that she was not committed to the public schools, as her own children are getting a parochial education. Her response: She is educating her children in their faith, and has spent her career supporting public education, as first a teacher and then an education professor.
Harris is well known in South Tampa for her successful Circle C Ranch, which offers preschool, after-school and summer programs in a farm-like setting. Harris also has been a foster parent to dozens of children and has a daughter who is the principal of Shore Elementary School.
Her election to the board in 2014 was considered a major upset because she defeated the better-funded Michelle Shimberg.
In this year's contest, Harris raised $25,751 and Hahn raised $40,029. Hahn spent $37,334, twice as much as Harris's $18,103.
It was Harris who cast the two important tie-breaking votes in 2015, first to fire superintendent MaryEllen Elia and then to hire Elia's replacement, Jeff Eakins. Because of those votes, and because of her strong support of Eakins, she became vulnerable to those who were dissatisfied with Eakins and the district.
Harris, although surprised by the clear defeat, said she did not think the vote was any kind of public show of dissatisfaction. If anything, she said, constituents are aware of the district's financial challenges and impressed with steps Eakins has taken to get control over its finances.
"I truly think that in today's world, the election is won in the early voting and I think that she was stronger in getting her stuff out earlier," Harris said. "She had more money than I did and she got her information out a lot faster than I did. And she had a lot of endorsements. My money came later in the game."
She said she looks forward to devoting more of her energies to her preschool while remaining involved in public education.
"I believe that God has another plan," she said. "Another door will open and that's life."
The election, coming days after the current board voted to pursue a tax referendum in November, puts Hahn in a potentially awkward situation. On the campaign trail, Hahn said she opposed the referendum because the administration lacks credibility.
On Tuesday, Hahn said she will withhold further judgment until she settles into her new role.
"I want to get there," she said. "I want to review everything. I have to be sitting in that seat to make that decision and have conversations, especially with my constituents."
Overall, she said, she was elated at the election results.
"I worked hard after all these months and I am excited to have the opportunity to serve on the board," she said. "The best interest of the kids are in my focus and I am just overwhelmed right now. But it's very exciting."
The seven members of the Hillsborough County School Board serve four-year terms overseeing the nation's eighth largest public school district. The positions are nonpartisan and pay $44,423 a year.
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