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Hillsborough School Board members push for more transparency

Nadia Combs, Jessica Vaughn and Karen Perez say the district needs to keep the public better informed.
Hillsborough County School Board members Nadia Combs, left, and Jessica Vaughn attend an unusual "member-to-member" meeting on Thursday. Board member Karen Perez, who attended remotely, can be seen on the screen above.
Hillsborough County School Board members Nadia Combs, left, and Jessica Vaughn attend an unusual "member-to-member" meeting on Thursday. Board member Karen Perez, who attended remotely, can be seen on the screen above. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times staff ]
Published Feb. 25, 2021|Updated Feb. 25, 2021

TAMPA — Two of Hillsborough County’s newest School Board members called on district officials Thursday to provide them with more information and offer more transparency for the public.

They said administrators should release more details on which jobs are in danger of being cut as the district works to cut spending. They also said the board should have been given more information in advance about a proposed sale of the district’s downtown Tampa headquarters.

The comments came during an unusual public meeting called by board members Nadia Combs and Jessica Vaughn. The two said they wanted the meeting because they had not been given enough time to discuss issues during the board’s regular gatherings. They were joined by another board member, Karen Perez.

“We are not trying to separate or be divisive or anything like that,” Combs said. But “sometimes I feel like I’m on an island by myself.”

For a little more than an hour, the three discussed student discipline statistics; independently run, publicly funded charter schools; and constituent concerns as superintendent Addison Davis continues with extensive budget cuts.

They also discussed the possibility that the state could take over the district if reserve funds dip too far below a threshold of 3 percent of revenues. The district is trying to raise or save $100 million by the end of the school year to avoid running out of cash.

Vaughn said she does not like the way the situation is being framed. “We’re not overstaffed, we’re underfunded,” she said. “I’m concerned about how it’s being presented.”

She and Vaughn said they were disappointed at a recent board workshop on charter schools. It was informative, Combs said. But she would have preferred to come up with an action plan, as charters now divert about $250 million a year from the district’s budget.

Combs said she worries that “within 10 years, education is going to be completely privatized.”

Related: Listen to Thursday's meeting.

All seven board members were invited to Thursday’s discussion, called a “member-to-member meeting.” But most — including chairwoman Lynn Gray — stayed away.

Perez attended remotely, through a video link, and voiced several concerns: discipline statistics that are misleading, as students were out of school several months in 2020; low-income communities whose children are bused to schools outside their neighborhoods, making it hard for parents to get involved; and a lack of understanding by many families of the district’s budget difficulties.

“We really need to help the community understand how things work,” Perez said.

Combs said she is still troubled by a recent board vote to put the district headquarters up for sale. She felt the matter should have been discussed in the community first.

The tone of Thursday’s session was calm and polite, in contrast to some of the exchanges that preceded it. A week earlier, board member Melissa Snively suggested Combs and Vaughn might have violated the state’s public meetings laws when they were planning the meeting.

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At the time, board attorney Jim Porter said he could not comment on a conversation he had not witnessed. But he added that a discussion strictly about their desire for a meeting would not constitute a violation.

While most of the members’ requests Thursday were broad, Combs made a specific one: She wants to see details, at the next full board meeting on March 9, about the school-based staff cuts.


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