16 very different candidates vying for 3 seats on Hillsborough School Board

Published Jan. 4, 2014

TAMPA — The last time they held elections for Hillsborough County School Board, candidates included a disgruntled math teacher and an activist trying to keep a Muslim organization out of the schools.

Neither won. But both are back in the campaign this year, although the teacher is now an ex-teacher.

And they have plenty of company: Sixteen candidates have filed to run for three open seats in the November election. As in years past, the group includes ideologues and neophytes.

"It's been very much a learning experience," said Dipa Shah, a lawyer running for an at-large seat that is being vacated by April Griffin. "I've never been involved in politics, other than making sure I got out to vote."

There is also a founding member of the Green Party, co-founder of a marketing company that sells acai berry juice, and a 19-year-old college student.

"It is quite a range of different candidates from various walks of life," said Melissa Snively, an insurance agent who wants to represent District 4 in eastern Hillsborough, where Stacy White is stepping down.

"I don't think any of us would be brave enough to say we are experts in education. But I do think there are some great candidates, and the fact that there are so many tells you there are people who care about education."

That's one way to look at it.

"Unfortunately, the School Board race does attract some fringe candidates," said political consultant Chris Ingram.

Those with significant political aspirations know they'll get broad support — and more money — in a race for Hillsborough County Commission, where two board incumbents already have six-digit war chests.

Among the School Board hopefuls, only Michelle Popp Shimberg — whose family is wealthy and well-connected — and entrepreneur Charles Brink have exceeded $50,000 in fundraising. Brink's $65,000 consists entirely of a loan to himself.

The candidates include newcomers such as Dee Prether, an Army veteran who worked as a substitute teacher and now home-schools her teenage son; and Randy Toler, who works for a technology company and has run for office four times before.

By some accounts, Toler founded the U.S. Green Party. "The mass media consider me the founder," he said. He describes himself as co-founder, rejects the label "fringe candidate" and says this of his politics: "I am pretty middle of the road."

Nowhere near the middle is Terry Kemple, running for a third time and known locally as a conservative Christian activist who has opposed gay rights and opening school on Good Friday.

In 2012, when Kemple led a movement to keep the Council on American-Islamic Relations out of classrooms, he said the organization was no better than one that supports pedophilia.

He said he opposed CAIR, not Islam as a whole, and had a broad platform that might have been overlooked in all the hype. He still does, he said, including his opposition to the new Common Core curriculum.

But he said if another controversy arises that needs a conservative voice, he'll step forward because "no one else in this community will."

He's running this time against Prether and Snively, who has attracted by far the most money at $43,000.

Prether, who was raised by a divorced mother and hopes to be a voice for working parents, said she wants voters to look beyond the money. "I think I know what I'm doing," she said. "I like people and I love education."

The group also includes school district teacher mentor Jereme Monette, although it is unclear how long he will remain in the race. Monette has neither raised nor spent any money since May, according to records. He has not spoken to the Tampa Bay Times.

Neither has Brink, who is running at-large in District 6, a field of nine. Brink, formerly a contributor to reformist school board candidates and members, has spent only the $166 for filing fees. He has accepted contributions from no one.

Before establishing a charitable foundation that promotes advocacy in education, Brink made millions through MonaVie, a marketing company that sold fruit juice with advertised health and healing benefits.

The District 6 group also includes Asher Edelson, the Hillsborough Community College student; Toler, Shah; Russ Patterson, who made an unsuccessful bid for the state House in 2010; and Alison McGillivray Fernandez, who is finishing her second term as a member of the Temple Terrace City Council.

"With the incumbents gone, now everybody's coming out," Fernandez said. "Historically, in School Board races, no matter how unhappy people are, it's almost impossible to beat an incumbent."

In South Tampa's District 2, Candy Olson is also stepping down when her term ends this year. Those looking to replace her include Shimberg, a community volunteer; and Michael Weston, the former Freedom High School teacher who made a practice of criticizing Olson at board meetings, along with the new teacher evaluation system.

Weston's fortunes changed in February when an anonymous letter-writer accused him of disrespecting teachers and students. Olson read the letter out loud at a board meeting, including an allegation that Weston said he was "going to Las Vegas to get laid." Olson announced her departure shortly afterward.

The district's investigation of Weston did not substantiate he ever made the Las Vegas statement, and he was cleared of allegations that he disrespected staff. Students interviewed did say he was rude to them.

But Weston says district officials purposely selected students who would say negative things about him, and he filed a grievance. As Weston did not have tenure, the principal was able to dismiss him when the school year ended.

Asked about the case this week, Weston provided a letter from a parent who said her son liked Weston and that the school needed more teachers like him.

Rounding out the District 2 candidates but trailing in fundraising is Sally Harris, who operates a child care center and is running for the second time. Harris said she plans to "hit the ground running" after Monday, when students return to school.

As she sees it, there is nothing wrong with the field of entrants drawn to a School Board race.

"I think it attracts quality candidates if their heart is in the right place, if they have a strong desire to make a difference in a child's world," she said.

As for money: Cindy Stuart beat incumbent Jack Lamb in 2012 even though Lamb outspent her 3-1. Her advice to the candidates: Don't underestimate how much work goes into the job, before and after the election.

"It's a lot harder than it looks," she said. "We want to call it a part-time job, but I can guarantee it is not a part-time job."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or