Hillsborough School Board struggles to keep up with state laws on gender, race

Some board members wonder if the district has enough legal help.
Hillsborough County School Board member Lynn Gray, along with board member Nadia Combs, argued in favor of hiring full-time attorneys, as other large school districts do.
Hillsborough County School Board member Lynn Gray, along with board member Nadia Combs, argued in favor of hiring full-time attorneys, as other large school districts do. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2021) ]
Published Dec. 14, 2022

On the eve of a state meeting that will discuss racial and gender identity issues in numerous school districts, the Hillsborough School Board did not debate the merits of what state leaders are asking of them.

Instead, they wondered: Do we have enough lawyers?

Hillsborough, unlike other large districts, uses outside counsel instead of maintaining its own legal staff. The fear, some members said, is that Hillsborough could be hit with a large court judgment or run up massive fees from outside counsel because of a lack of preparation.

“Our school board attorney needs to be proactive, help us know and learn about legislation before it happens,” Gray said.

The issue that sparked the conversation is a letter from state Education Chancellor Jacob Oliva, warning the district that it appears out of compliance in its racial equity policy and its staff guidance for LGBTQ students. Both documents appear to contradict new state laws that protect parental rights and prohibit what conservatives call the “woke” agenda.

Superintendent Addison Davis assured the board members that his staff is doing all it can to coordinate with state officials and bring both the policy and the LGBTQ guide book up to date.

Eight other districts have also been put on notice, along with the Florida School for Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine. Updates are planned Wednesday at a meeting of the State Board of Education.

Hillsborough board members Lynn Gray and Nadia Combs argued in favor of hiring full-time attorneys, as other large school districts do. Member Jessica Vaughn pushed back, saying colleagues in other school districts — some with large legal staffs — are as confused as she is over what the state really wants. “We can’t be pro-active about things that don’t have clarity,” she said.

Member Stacy Hahn, echoing a complaint from a speaker at Tuesday’s meeting, said she wants to see information displayed more clearly on the board’s meeting agendas. The racial equity policy in question can be viewed online. But anyone who wants to see it would have to know how to research the board policies.

The guide book about LGBTQ students, to which Oliva referred in his letter, is available to staff but not the general public. The district shared a copy with the Tampa Bay Times last week upon request.

Board members agreed to schedule a workshop on both the state letter and the issue of in-house attorneys on Jan. 17. Davis said he expects by then to have worked out a set of changes that will satisfy state officials.

At issue are a number of practices that affect LGBTQ students, including the question of student confidentiality. An older guidebook said staff should refrain from divulging a student’s sexual orientation to parents “with the limited exception involving the imminent fear of physical harm.”

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A newer version, citing passages from the parental rights law, says staff should encourage and, in some cases facilitate conversations between students and their parents. It goes on to say that “school personnel are permitted to withhold information from a parent if a reasonably prudent person would believe that disclosure would result in abuse, abandonment, or neglect.”

In other action Tuesday, the district named a new principal at North Tampa’s Robles Elementary — the school’s sixth principal since 2017.

Christine Harris, 51, starts her new job on Jan. 9. She joined the district six months ago as an executive director for the Transofrmation Network, a group of high-needs schools that includes Robles. Before that, she was the principal of BridgePrep Academy, a charter school.

Harris is replacing Wallace Selph, who was Robles’ principal for slightly more than a year and is now relocating. Robles improved to a state “C” grade this year after seven years with a “D” grade.

The district is also in the process of hiring a new principal at Wimauma Elementary to replace Ismael Lebron-Bravo, who has taken a job in the district’s human resources office. Both of those moves are expected in January.