Hillsborough’s student state fair day might get a makeover

Ideas include extending it to include the weekend.
Fairgoers stroll past hundreds of food vendors at the Florida State Fairgrounds. [TIMES | 2016]
Fairgoers stroll past hundreds of food vendors at the Florida State Fairgrounds. [TIMES | 2016]
Published July 30, 2019|Updated July 30, 2019

TAMPA — Hillsborough County’s Student Fair Day might become more of a Student Fair Weekend.

Or it might become known as a "non-student day,” to distance school officials from liability when things go wrong.

Or, when students are disruptive at the fair, they might be led to a cool-down room with counselors and mental health workers instead of turned over to law enforcement.

The School Board tossed all of these ideas around at a workshop Tuesday, agreeing there is room for improvement in their relationship with the Florida State Fair.

“This day certainly can be better, and it certainly is not fun for everyone,” said Chairwoman Tamara Shamburger, who asked for the discussion and had some of the most substantive ideas.

"We have an opportunity to make small, simple changes that will have a greater impact on the entire community."

At stake is a longstanding tradition of closing school on a weekday and allowing students free admission to the fair.

The schools do not provide transportation or supervision. And in some years the results have been problematic, especially in the evening hours. In 2014, things became especially chaotic and dozens of teens were either arrested or ejected. Andrew Joseph III, a private school student who was 14, was killed by a passing motorist on a highway after he was removed from the fair.

Since then, the yearly fair day has been met with protests from supporters of the Joseph family. At the same time, the district has worked with law enforcement and the fair authority to tighten security.

Sheer numbers make the situation problematic, Shamburger said, so much that Student Fair Day "has become synonymous with problems, misbehavior, heavy law enforcement, ejection and arrests.”

What’s more, she said, “in order to curb the chaos,” there is an increased law enforcement presence “very similar to the over policing that many of these students already encounter on a daily basis.”

Other board members pondered the liability — both legally, and in terms of public perception. Some wondered if they should stop handing out tickets at school, and instead allow students simply to be admitted at the gate with school identification.

“We distribute the tickets,” member Cindy Stuart said. “And that’s why I think it’s perceived that the district actually has some sort of authority over what happens once the tickets are given to students.”

Stuart, Shamburger and others were looking for ways to prevent people from believing the school district sanctions the free day for students.

There was no discussion about the impact the tradition has on working parents, who must either miss a day of work or arrange child care with schools closed and who often cannot afford the related expenses of attending the fair, such as parking and food.

But there was a suggestion, from Shamburger, that Fair Day be extended to include the weekend — or that the fair authority allow the tickets to be used any day the fair is open.

Board member Lynn Gray suggested a cool-down room staffed by school officials, an idea that others rejected because they feared liability.

“It does make me nervous that we’re handing out tickets,” Snively said. “And then it would really be involving the school district if we start to provide services on the state fairgrounds.”

Technically, district officials pointed out, the days off for the fair and for the Strawberry Festival in East Hillsborough play an important function in designing the school district calendar. State law dictates how early school can begin and when testing can happen. The district also aims to finish mid-term exams before the winter holiday break, which means there are days early in the calendar year when the schools must close.

Discussions are ongoing with fair officials, who sent a delegation to sit in on the workshop but did not address the group.

For now, district officials are working on a “family day” concept with the hope that more parents will take part along with their children.

Board member Stacy Hahn, echoing a sentiment often expressed by district leaders, said it is important to support the fair as a community resource. “I love the fair,” she said. “One thing that might be nice is to promote a lot of the different educational activities there are at the fair. There’s something for everybody in your family at the fair.”