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Hillsborough School Board races test confidence in a struggling system

The district continues to have trouble with finances, and its decision to reopen schools was far from smooth. How will voters react?

TAMPA — It’s hard to imagine a worse time to run for Hillsborough County School Board.

Incumbents are being hammered by disgruntled teachers and fearful parents in a time of coronavirus and budget cuts. Challengers are wondering how they can do better.

Not a single incumbent won reelection in the Aug. 18 primary, or came in first. Three face runoffs on Nov. 3.

A fourth race, which has no incumbents, pits moderate Mitch Thrower against progressive Democrat Jessica Vaughn. But, with so much dissatisfaction in the air, it’s hard to give either candidate the edge.

“I think it’s a difficult time right now for any of the School Board members and the superintendent," said Thrower, a certified public accountant who hopes his credentials will make him appealing as the district tries to adjust its spending habits.

“It’s a difficult time for everybody.”

School district leaders like to point out that schools everywhere are struggling to balance safety and health concerns with the needs and demands of families who have plenty of alternatives in the charter and private school sectors.

No one, including brand-new Hillsborough superintendent Addison Davis, was ready when the state ordered all instruction to be home-based in March. And no community enjoyed a consensus when it came time to figure out how to reopen schools in August.

But local voters are not watching other school districts. They’re watching their own children’s schools, and speaking out when things go wrong.

Students at Hillsborough High line up outside the school's entrance on the first day of in-person classes Aug. 31. In the days before that, the school district and the state went back and forth over how and when schools should reopen. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

“One of the things that I feel has hurt incumbents was the back-and-forth when they were opening schools,” said candidate and former School Board member Sally Harris, recalling the weeks when Hillsborough’s plans kept changing after state’s reopening order.

Lynn Gray, the countywide incumbent who Harris is challenging, agreed that the pandemic, and all things related to it, have put board members in an unenviable spot.

“We’re unpopular because not everybody likes the e-learning," Gray said. "And not everyone feels safe inside the classroom.”

Hillsborough also is in the throes of change. Davis, who made no secret that he would shake things up, quickly surrounded himself with deputies from his former positions in Clay and Duval Counties. He said he discovered spending imbalances in his new district that, left unchecked, could empty the cash reserves that the state requires school systems to maintain.

All of that is ammunition for challengers, who wonder how the sitting School Board could allow things to deteriorate so badly.

Thomas Francis, 7, holds a sign in support of the arts. He's a student at Westchase Elementary, where he enjoys drawing classes and plays the violin. Parents, teachers and students from Hillsborough County schools came together to protest budget cuts for arts programs before a School Board meeting on Sept. 22 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

“I think that now it’s interesting that Steve Cona is saying we need to be conscientious about finances,” said Nadia Combs, who is challenging the first-term School Board member in northwest Hillsborough’s District 1. “But he’s been on that board for two years. He’s been on the finance committee for two years.”

Yes, said Cona, who has steadfastly been Davis’ biggest supporter. But “as a School Board member, you are only as good as the information given to you by staff and the superintendent.”

Cona also had these words of caution for new members: “It’s easy to campaign against the incumbents. But the bad news is, if you get elected, you’ll be dealing with it.”

Cona, Gray and board member Tamara Shamburger in central Hillsborough’s District 5 have much they can point to as accomplishments.

Cona convinced the district to put an International Baccalaureate program in Alonso High School so students in the Westchase area would not have to commute all the way to Robinson High for the high-rigor program. Also on his watch, the district increased the availability of dual-language, Spanish-English programs in District 1′s elementary schools.

Gray and Shamburger have been strong advocates for Hillsborough’s African American students, many of whom had been shortchanged for years with aging facilities and inexperienced teachers. The number of F-rated schools in Shamburger’s electoral district has decreased dramatically since she was elected in 2016. Gray is working with community leaders to enhance instruction of African American history.

But all three are aware that much of this could be forgotten in an election season that finds voters under so much stress.

“Talking to teachers, I think morale is very low right now, an all-time low, and it’s not just the pandemic,” said Combs, who operates a tutoring business.

It’s worse than that, said Vaughn, a substitute teacher. “When I talk to teachers, and I talk to teachers quite often, they liken experience to being in an abusive relationship,” she said.

Teachers are having to learn myriad new computer systems as Davis seeks to bring uniformity to some of their teaching methods. Job cuts have elective teachers up in arms. Gray is the only incumbent being endorsed by the teacher’s union, which has also given its nod to Combs, Vaughn and Henry “Shake” Washington.

On social media, there are virulent attacks on Davis. Critics question his decision to order physical improvements to the district headquarters, and to enter into a contract with the educational software vendor Achieve 3000, a company whose products he used successfully in Clay and Duval counties; without first disclosing publicly that his brother is an executive for the company.

Despite these and other complaints, no one is calling publicly for Davis’ removal.

Both Combs and Vaughn said they want to work with Davis, not look for a way to push him out. Harris said the board and community need to give Davis room to prove that he can keep his promise to get better results at Hillsborough’s D- and F-rated schools.

Shamburger agreed that Davis needs time — and she is asking for more time as well.

“I know people are unhappy," she said. “But the greater majority understands the need for consistency. I think if this board were to completely flip, their ability to lead and guide and direct Addison wouldn’t be as great.”

Shamburger’s specific challenge is to distinguish herself from Washington, who built his reputation as a successful high school principal and went on to serve as an area director for the district. In her first term, Shamburger got into social media scrapes with a teacher and an education advocate. She admits now that she needed time to learn the politics of the job.

Washington prides himself in being able to avoid such minefields. “My personality is to listen to people and build relationships and get the job done,” he said. “You don’t always have to be combative or disruptive to get the job done.”

Shamburger said she believes there is a place for Washington in the district. But, she said, “Shake has had 42 years to make a change in the district. He has not been able to. And he’s definitely not going to be able to do it in the next four years. When we make this a popularity contest instead of what it really needs to be, that’s when our community loses.”

Thrower, in District 3, is also trying to present himself as a calmer, more stable presence than his opponent.

As a certified public accountant who has audited school districts, Thrower said he is exactly what the board needs as it puzzles its way through its latest financial morass. “As an auditor, I’ve been trained to listen to folks and ask questions. And I think the listening and asking questions is something we need right now.”

Vaughn paints Thrower as a part of the establishment, and says she can do better.

“I bring bold new ideas," she said. "I think that I approach things from being solution-oriented, asking a lot of questions and thinking outside box. I’m proactive rather than reactive.”

All of the candidates said they are finding it difficult to campaign at a time when so many Americans have soured on politics in general.

“What you wind up doing is looking for a common denominator,” Gray said. “Like the safety of your children. We all want the safety of our children to be a priority,”