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In Hillsborough, a new School Board majority favors teachers

The teachers' union backed all four winners in Tuesday’s election, potentially changing the dynamic between the board and superintendent Addison Davis.
From left, Hillsborough School Board candidates Jessica Vaughn, Nadia Combs, Henry "Shake" Washington and Lynn Gray posed for this photo at a Souls to the Polls event, Nov. 1 at the C. Blythe Andrews, Jr. Public Library in Tampa. Vaughn, Combs and Washington won seats on the board in Tuesday's election. Gray was re-elected.
From left, Hillsborough School Board candidates Jessica Vaughn, Nadia Combs, Henry "Shake" Washington and Lynn Gray posed for this photo at a Souls to the Polls event, Nov. 1 at the C. Blythe Andrews, Jr. Public Library in Tampa. Vaughn, Combs and Washington won seats on the board in Tuesday's election. Gray was re-elected. [ Courtesy of Nilesh Kapadia ]
Published Nov. 4, 2020

TAMPA — At a time of abrupt change in the Hillsborough County Public Schools, Tuesday’s election results could shift the relationship between the district’s new leaders and its teachers.

Voters rejected two sitting School Board members, including Steve Cona III, the strongest supporter of its new superintendent.

They retained longtime former teacher Lynn Gray. All four candidates who prevailed were endorsed by the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

The timing, for teachers, is fortuitous, as superintendent Addison Davis is launching a series of initiatives that many educators are questioning.

These include a ramp-up in computer-based testing, which is intended to help improve literacy skills, and hundreds of job cuts to balance the operating budget.

With the new and arguably more teacher-friendly board, “we’re going to have a deeper, more collaborative process than ever before,” union president Rob Kriete said Wednesday. “There might be a little friction there, but nothing that we can’t sit down at the table and collaborate over."

In considering which candidates to endorse, union leaders looked at issues that varied from one race to the next.

In western Hillsborough’s District 1, two-year incumbent Cona fell out of favor with the union when he suggested contracting out the district’s custodial services. Challenger Nadia Combs, by contrast, won union members over with her educational background and enthusiasm.

Despite a high-energy campaign and tangible accomplishments for schools in his electoral district, Steve Cona III lost his bid for re-election. One important constituency, the teachers' union, threw its support to challenger Nadia Combs, an educator. [Times (2020)]
Despite a high-energy campaign and tangible accomplishments for schools in his electoral district, Steve Cona III lost his bid for re-election. One important constituency, the teachers' union, threw its support to challenger Nadia Combs, an educator. [Times (2020)]

“We all have the students at the center, and that’s the most important thing,” Combs said shortly after the returns came in on Tuesday. “A school board should really be student-centered and teacher-centered.”

Classroom experience also favored District 3 winner Jessica Vaughn of New Tampa, who works as a substitute teacher.

In central Tampa’s District 5, there were multiple marks against incumbent Tamara Shamburger. In 2018, a teacher complained that after she challenged Shamburger in a Facebook conversation, Shamburger notified the teacher’s principal. Other teachers saw that as retaliation and intimidation.

Tammy Shamburger was chairwoman of the Hillsborough County School Board in 2019, when a forgotten cemetery was discovered on the grounds of King High School. Despite her advocacy to dignify those buried there, and for racial equity in schools, Shamburger was unseated in Tuesday's election by retired administrator Henry "Shake" Washington. [Times (2018)]
Tammy Shamburger was chairwoman of the Hillsborough County School Board in 2019, when a forgotten cemetery was discovered on the grounds of King High School. Despite her advocacy to dignify those buried there, and for racial equity in schools, Shamburger was unseated in Tuesday's election by retired administrator Henry "Shake" Washington. [Times (2018)]

Apart from that incident, Kriete said, “we thought maybe Tammy thought our contract got in the way of good things happening.” Ultimately, he said, the union leadership felt more comfortable with the temperament of retired educator Henry “Shake” Washington, who pledged Tuesday to “bring people together in a common cause.”

For the countywide District 7 contest, the union went with incumbent Lynn Gray even though in 2016, they had backed her opponent. “We have found Lynn to be communicative and collaborative, always able to have open and frank conversations about the issues,” Kriete said.

Davis on Wednesday commended Shamburger and Cona for their service. He said he hopes to learn from the new board members, to listen to what they have been told on the campaign trail and, in turn, help them understand what he is trying to accomplish for the district.

“Overall, I firmly believe that regardless of anyone’s political makeup, everyone can genuinely be here to help students, and protect the working conditions of our adults,” he said.

Several of the winners said Tuesday evening that they will feel comfortable working as a group after they are sworn in on Nov. 17. “Some of us built a working relationship beforehand,” said Vaughn, whose husband photographed the four at a Souls to the Polls event on Sunday.

Could they push back against some of Davis’ initiatives?

That remains to be seen, Kriete said.

The union is trying to protect teachers against being pressured to teach virtual and in-person students simultaneously. The issue of computer-based skills tests is also an area of concern, with teachers wanting testing only when it helps them meet the needs of their students.

Davis agreed that tests should be something teachers can use to improve their practice, and that simultaneous teaching is extremely difficult.

All of the candidates, during their campaigns and on election night, said they want to work with Davis, and Kriete agreed. He said there have been bumps in the relationship, with Davis trying to take bold steps and the union urging him to slow down in this stressful time.

“This School Board is going to be looking at solutions to help kids,” Kriete said. “We realize there have been some learning potholes that have been created from the pandemic. And we know that this board is going to be solutions focused. They’re going to look beyond the bottom line of dollars and cents.”