Complaint against Hillsborough school superintendent alleges misspent money

A Tampa parent urges a closer look at a big contract, budget decisions and the commuting habits of superintendent Addison Davis.
Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis addresses the School Board on April 27 in Tampa. A parent's complaint to the state Inspector General's office alleges he has improperly spent public funds.
Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis addresses the School Board on April 27 in Tampa. A parent's complaint to the state Inspector General's office alleges he has improperly spent public funds. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 7, 2021|Updated May 7, 2021

The Hillsborough County School Board has been asked to respond to a state complaint against superintendent Addison Davis that alleges several instances of misused public funds.

Tampa parent Amy Canfield, in her complaint, named a list of issues about Davis that have been discussed widely on social media.

They include the district’ $3.7 million contract with the software company Achieve3000, where Davis’ brother is a senior vice president; staff cuts that most recently affected about 100 teachers; and word that Davis “used tax dollars for a paid driver.”

The Office of Inspector General notified the School Board on April 29 that it has 30 days to investigate the allegations and submit a written response. In a contract approved on Thursday, the board has retained the Tallahassee law firm of Sniffen and Spellman to handle the matter.

Canfield, a mother of two, told the Tampa Bay Times she was moved to file the complaint “when 108 teachers were cut and the primary focus seemed to be fine arts and (physical education), which is not going to lead to well-rounded children.”

In her complaint, Canfield wrote that the teachers were cut even though the district is getting COVID-19 relief funds.

Canfield said issues about Davis and district spending are discussed widely among parents. Some belong to Facebook groups and others post comments on television news stories, she said.

While the district could not comment on the complaint while it is under investigation, Davis has spoken on most of these issues for news reports.

In July, when the Achieve3000 contract was an issue in several School Board races, Davis said his brother was not directly involved, and did not benefit from the contract. A statement from the company’s chief executive officer backed him up. And, contrary to what the complaint alleges, Davis’ brother is not an owner or founder of the company, which sells a learning platform to boost literacy and math skills.

Davis does not have a paid driver, the superintendent and his staff said in answer to recent questions from the Tampa Bay Times. His contract includes a transportation allowance, which is common for superintendents. For Davis, the allowance is $375 a month.

Separately, according to district officials, he is often driven to schools and public events by a variety of employees, depending on the circumstance. Sometimes it is a member of his senior staff, they said. Other times, it is a corporal on the security staff.

Davis takes calls and emails, or prepares for speaking engagements while in the car. When the employees are not with him, they perform their regular duties. District officials note that the same arrangement was in place for Davis’ predecessors, MaryEllen Elia and Jeff Eakins.

The situation concerning the 108 low-seniority employees is related to another 1,000 positions that the district is cutting for the next school year. Because of those cuts, officials were anticipating a flood of teachers in the hiring pool, meaning those newer teachers could not be guaranteed positions. Before the notices went out, Davis’s team cut the number to 91.

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Although the federal government is providing COVID-19 relief aid, much of that money went to cleaning and safety supplies. The state has taken a hard line against using it for ongoing expenses. Hillsborough, in particular, has struggled for years to balance is operating budget, and is under orders to strengthen its cash reserve.

The ethics complaint appears to suggest the federal money was misspent.

Davis is not the only school official attracting formal complaints recently.

Social media posts by School Board members Nadia Combs and Jessica Vaughn attracted the attention of a Tampa resident who flagged them to the state’s Commission on Ethics.

Combs posted an article about a charter school provider and board chair Lynn Gray wrote a comment in response. Florida’s sunshine law does not allow members of an elected board to discuss matters on which they might vote, outside a noticed meeting. “How is that my fault?” Combs said Friday. “I don’t even know how I’m involved in that. I didn’t even comment on what she said.”

The issue for Vaughn concerns her post from April 17 on a parent advocacy site. It suggested that if someone was interested in firing Davis, that person should poll the board. If there were enough votes, Vaughn continued in the post, the person should send her a private message.

“I was being cheeky and that was a bad way to word it,” Vaughn told the Times. She said she was trying to explain that it would take a board majority to dismiss the superintendent, and that she could not take the pulse of the board without violating sunshine laws.

“I’m new and it was a very good lesson for me, to be very, very specific and careful,” Vaughn said, adding, “Nobody got back to me.”

Overall, Vaughn said the complaints “are a symptom of how divided our community is. We do not have the community’s trust.”