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Tampa Bay school board races are set amid high political interest

Some offer voters stark choices, with candidates who support or oppose Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education agenda.
Voters will select school board members in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties in the August and November elections.
Voters will select school board members in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties in the August and November elections. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Jun. 17|Updated Jun. 20

School district politics have drawn increased attention over the past year as boards have grappled with hot button issues — from disputes over pandemic masking to topics like library book content, gender and race.

The interest became clear as candidates qualified this week for the Aug. 23 nonpartisan school board elections, in which all voters may participate.

Across the Tampa Bay region, board hopefuls emerged demanding stricter adherence to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ conservative education agenda, such as the banning of “indoctrination.” Candidates opposed to aspects of DeSantis’ platform also turned out, providing voters with stark choices for several seats.

If no candidate wins a majority in any given seat, the top two vote-getters advance to a November runoff. Voters in Hillsborough and Pasco counties will also decide school tax referendums in August.

Pinellas County

Four seats are up for election on the Pinellas County School Board, which often has drawn large crowds to speak on contentious issues.
Four seats are up for election on the Pinellas County School Board, which often has drawn large crowds to speak on contentious issues. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2021) ]

A majority of seats on the Pinellas County School Board are up for grabs, with incumbents Nicole Carr and Bill Dudley not seeking reelection. The outcome could influence the district’s direction under incoming superintendent Kevin Hendrick.

Two seats are chosen by the entire county.

In District 2, incumbent Lisa Cane will face Tarpon Springs Middle School teacher Brad DeCorte and Bronson Oudshoff, a research operations manager at an ophthalmology practice.

Cane, who runs a youth musical theater school, has four children in the district. She has been among the board’s most conservative members and has received support from Republican leaders including House Speaker Chris Sprowls.

DeCorte is an active member of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association board of directors. Oudshoff once ran for Largo City Council and has invoked prayer as a way to improve the schools.

District 3 pits conservative parent activist Dawn Peters, who has called for a return to basics in the classroom, against two liberal candidates — former teacher and Democratic state lawmaker Carl Zimmermann, who lost a board bid in 2018, and educator Keesha Benson, who has led social service groups including Thrive by Five and the Grow Smarter Initiative.

Some observers have suggested that Zimmermann and Benson could split the Democratic-leaning vote, opening the door for Peters, a personal trainer, to grab the seat now held by Carr.

Among the single-member districts, the District 6 race to replace Dudley in representing south-central Pinellas includes private religious school teacher and Hillsborough Community College adjunct instructor Stephanie Meyer, who lost her 2020 bid for the District 1 seat; Medicare case specialist Kimberly Works, a special education parent activist; and small business owner Brian Martin.

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Meyer is a supporter of the parental rights movement advanced by DeSantis and has the backing of several conservative groups. Works and Martin have taken more moderate to liberal stances on issues including education equity.

District 7, representing southern Pinellas, finds incumbent Caprice Edmond against swimming school owner Maria Solanki. Edmond, previously a teacher and union activist, was elected to a partial term in 2020 and is seeking a four-year term against Solanki in what appears a clear battle of opposite viewpoints.

Edmond has advocated for underrepresented students and incurred the ire of groups opposed to mask mandates. Solanki, who once launched a failed attempt to open a vegan charter school in Pinellas, bashes Edmond and teacher unions and says the district should offer help and free busing to families applying for vouchers to attend private schools.

Hillsborough County

Three seats are up for election on the Hillsborough County School Board.
Three seats are up for election on the Hillsborough County School Board. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Election results in Hillsborough County could move the School Board to the left at a time when the board is at odds with the Republican-controlled state administration.

The majority-Democrat board recently drew backlash when it tried to close four charter schools and mandated masks during the worst of the pandemic.

Board members in 2021 also considered parting ways with superintendent Addison Davis until state leaders ordered them to focus on the district’s budget deficit instead.

But most board members remain opposed to Tallahassee leadership’s views on gay and transgender rights, library book selection, race-related instruction and charter schools.

Two exceptions are Melissa Snively, elected from the conservative East Hillsborough District 4 and Stacy Hahn, whose District 2 spans South Tampa and parts of southeast Hillsborough.

Snively is not seeking re-election. Her seat will be filled by Patti Rendon, a Republican who works for a company that assists disabled adults; independent Hunter Gambrell, senior coordinator for workforce education in the Polk County school district; or Democrat Danielle Smalley, who taught in high-needs Hillsborough schools and is now an assistant director at a Kids Community College charter school.

In Hahn’s case, the board changed her district’s electoral boundaries, moving the largely Republican Sun City Center into Snively’s District 4.

A registered Republican who considers herself a moderate but sometimes voices conservative views, Hahn is challenged by Damaris Allen, a South Tampa Democrat. A win by Allen — an advocate for fully funded public schools and a former county PTA/PTSA leader — would translate to a leftward shift for the board.

In District 6, Karen Perez, an advocate for mental health services and minority communities, has two challengers. They are Republican Roshaun Gendrett, a career educator-turned-educational advocate from California, and Alysha “Aly Marie” Legge, who home-schools her five children and served in the military.

Legge has placed parental rights at the center of her platform and received contributions from the Tampa Bay Young Republicans and the Front Line Patriots Fund, which supports conservative veteran candidates.

Pasco County

Three of five seats are up for election on the Pasco County School Board.
Three of five seats are up for election on the Pasco County School Board. [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]

The Pasco County School Board has three seats up for election. Pasco has single-member districts, but each is voted upon countywide.

After 16 years representing east Pasco, District 1 member Allen Altman announced his retirement. He has joined with much of the county’s Republican political establishment in supporting Alvaro Hernandez, a vice president for Humana whom DeSantis recently reappointed to the Pasco-Hernando State College board of trustees.

Also running on a conservative “anti-woke” platform is Stephen Meisman, president of Aircraft Tooling and Design. On the other side of the political spectrum, Zephyrhills High School teacher James Washington, an advocate for LGBTQ student rights, is seeking the seat.

District 3, representing southwest Pasco, has incumbent Cynthia Armstrong, a real estate agent and former teacher, facing Matthew Geiger, director of student services at Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School.

District 5, in northwest Pasco, pits incumbent Megan Harding, a former teacher who instructs at Saint Leo University, against retired chiropractor Charles Touseull, who was drafted to run by groups that have opposed the district on issues such as diversity curriculum and LGBTQ student rights. Harding has backing within Pasco’s Republican establishment, including outgoing Senate president Wilton Simpson.

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