Controversial guest speaker policy could be revised in Hillsborough schools

Published Aug. 10, 2012

TAMPA — Eight months after a Muslim civil rights leader inadvertently touched off a firestorm in the Hillsborough County public schools, the School Board is poised to give parents notice of guest speakers in the schools.

The board came close to voting on such a plan Thursday, then tabled the matter until Sept. 11. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia wanted to get feedback from teachers and principals before moving ahead.

The plan, if enacted, does not satisfy Terry Kemple, a School Board candidate who is at the forefront of a movement to keep the Council on American-Islamic Relations out of the schools.

"It's the same old stuff," he said. "It doesn't affect our issues." Kemple contends that CAIR has terrorist ties, which the group denies.

CAIR executive director Hassan Shibly did not object to the idea but wondered how much control parents should have over curriculum. "It's a slippery slope," he said.

Until now, the administration and most of the board have held firm to a policy that gives teachers and principals discretion when they invite speakers. Stacy White is the only member who has considered Kemple's position, and last week floated a policy Kemple had written.

The others have taken the anti-CAIR backlash as an insult to teachers and, to some extent, expressions of xenophobia.

"I am ashamed of us as human beings," said April Griffin, who has been outspoken in her dislike of the ongoing debate.

But, having listened to anti-CAIR speakers at nearly every board meeting since January, member Susan Valdes floated a compromise Thursday.

Instead of singling out CAIR, Valdes said, teachers should notify parents whenever a speaker — even a seemingly noncontroversial one, such as a School Board member — visits the class. That way, as with human sexuality lectures, parents can opt out on behalf of their kids.

"To me, it's just common sense," Valdes said. "Let them know whoever it is, is coming."

In other business, the board discussed Elia's yearly evaluation — and reasons why some members submitted numerical scores, but no written comments.

Offended by news reports that pointed out four of the seven are running for re-election, member Doretha Edgecomb said she meets with Elia one-on-one throughout the year and gives her plenty of feedback.

"You see, by doing this there are no surprises at the time of her summative evaluation," she said, insisting she would never shirk her responsibilities in order to win an election.

Member Carol Kurdell was similarly adamant that Elia hears from her regularly.

"I have my conversations as one professional to another, in private," she said. Teacher evaluations are confidential for a year, she said. "And we owe the person we hire to run the school district the same courtesy."

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The board also put to rest an issue White created a year ago when he suggested a workshop to discuss the terms of Elia's three-year contract. White's motion passed but the workshop never happened.

Since that time, Griffin pointed out, state law has put restrictions on superintendents' contracts, making it unrealistic to ask Elia to renegotiate hers. Instead, the board decided to fine-tune the evaluation form.

The board also asked Elia to report to them on substitute teacher pay, and what it would cost to give subs a raise. Teachers covered by the union — a group that does not include substitutes — are being offered a salary bump and cost-of-living raise this year, subject to contract ratification.