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Sparks fly among Hillsborough School Board members as private messages are leaked

Hillsborough County School Board members tried to work out their differences at a training day in Temple Terrace in October 2017.  But it didn't go well that day and rifts remain, as evidenced by a private exchange revealed Friday in the Tampa newspaper La Gaceta. [Times (2017)]
Hillsborough County School Board members tried to work out their differences at a training day in Temple Terrace in October 2017. But it didn't go well that day and rifts remain, as evidenced by a private exchange revealed Friday in the Tampa newspaper La Gaceta. [Times (2017)]
Published May 25, 2018

TAMPA — Somebody got into Hillsborough County School Board member Melissa Snively's Facebook account, copied her messages and gave them to a newspaper publisher who is a friend of her rivals on the board.

The posts discussed politics and power struggles on a board already known for infighting.

One message, from a teacher to Snively and board member Lynn Gray, discussed who the board's next chair and vice chair should be. The exchange suggests that Florida's open meetings law might have been violated. But Snively said it was not, as she did not respond during the exchange.

ALSO READ: Eakins 'exploring' a referendum to help fund Hillsborough schools

Patrick Manteiga, publisher of La Gaceta, would not reveal the source of the messages, which were re-typed into his "As We Heard It" column. When asked if it was a board member, Manteiga would not say. School Board member April Griffin, a friend of his, said it wasn't her. "That information has gotten into a lot of people's laps," she said.

Snively said she has contacted the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office about the breach of privacy, and that they are investigating. The only places where someone could read her messages, she said, were in her board office or on the meeting room dais.

"I'm deeply troubled," she said. "Not just for me, but for all my colleagues."

Snively said constituents often contact her on Facebook about personal matters involving their children. "I have hundreds of messages," she said.

The article appeared in a week when board members were trying to project a collegial image as the district held high school graduations.

Superintendent Jeff Eakins issued this statement: "I've just shaken the hands of more than 11,000 students as they walked across the stage and received their diplomas at graduation. Our staff is now focused on the exciting work we have in front of us to continue bringing more of those students across the stage in the future."

The dust-up also is happening as Eakins researches referendum options to raise taxes for the schools. One liability is the board's reputation for discord, and the airing of Snively's Facebook content is not likely to help.

"We all have certain ways we feel about other people that we would obviously never say publicly," said Kelso Tanner, a board candidate who was quoted in one thread telling Snively she is "like a Ph.D. being forced to work with village idiots."

But, he told a reporter: "Just by watching how some of them conduct themselves on the board, that's the way they come across."

Manteiga, who said he is a friend of Griffin and board members Susan Valdes, Cindy Stuart and Sally Harris, pointed out that despite the four women's reputation for dominating the board, they seldom differ ideologically.

But personal grudges and rivalries have existed since the four fired former superintendent MaryEllen Elia in January 2015.

"The perception exists," Manteiga said. "I don't think any one person on the board can point the finger at the other. Everybody at one point has said the wrong thing or done the wrong thing or could have been kinder."

Griffin said she was "appalled" by the comments she read in Manteiga's article. "It's very petty," she said. "It's very sneaky. It's very calculated."

She called out Ryan Haczynski, the high school teacher who suggested Snively and Gray lead the board. "We have a civics teacher who is trying to circumvent official channels," Griffin said.

Haczynski, an International Baccalaureate teacher at Strawberry Crest High, said he sent that message because he planned to float the idea publicly and wanted to clear it with Snively and Gray first.

"I do not teach civics," he said. "I do spend a lot of time on ethics." After what Snively experienced, he said, "there are tons of ethical questions to be asked, and if they want to light this powder keg, it will blow."

While Griffin said the dispatches raise the possibility of open meetings violations, Snively and Gray said they are confident they have not broken the law. One thread shows a conversation between the two. But it is about politics and politicians, Snively said, and not any issue that would be subject to a vote.

Gray, in that thread, said she would like to see Stacy Hahn unseat Harris to get "another smart person" on the board."

Gray expressed misgivings Friday about insulting Harris. But, she said, "I think the way I think. As I always say, I want two more School Board members, and I want them to be educationally sensitive. I stand on that."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol

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