TAMPA — Hillsborough County School Board member Cindy Stuart easily won a second four-year term with a wide lead over Seffner homemaker Alicia Toler in District 3 on Tuesday.
Incumbent Susan Valdes also appeared headed for a victory over retired school administrator Bill Person in District 1 by a very slim margin. Assuming she prevails, Valdes will get a fourth term on the seven-member board.
The countywide District 7 race will go to a runoff in November, as will the contest to represent District 5 in central Tampa.
Accountant Cathy James and former educator Lynn Gray will face one another in District 7 while insurance litigation manager Tamara Shamburger and engineer Joe Jordon-Robinson will be on the ballot in District 5.
Both Shamburger and Jordon-Robinson were confident Tuesday that they could win the support of the other three in their group.
"If I had to pick somebody to go to a runoff with, it would be Joe Robinson because I think I can defeat him," Shamburger said.
Jordon-Robinson said he plans to run a clean campaign against Shamburger despite what he described as negative tactics on her part. "We're going to focus on the issues," he said. "We want equity in the school district."
The campaigns, with a combined 17 candidates, were played out at a pivotal time for the school district.
One and a half years into the administration of Jeff Eakins, the nation's eighth-largest district faces financial challenges in the aftermath of a costly teaching reform experiment, and disappointing achievement levels in its inner-city, mostly black schools that have spurred a federal civil rights investigation.
As in other large school districts, Hillsborough also faces growing competition from publicly funded, privately managed charter schools. Charter companies and their affiliates donated $12,000 to Valdes' campaign.
Stuart and Valdes incurred some backlash early on for having cast two of the four votes to fire superintendent MaryEllen Elia in January 2015.
But the underfunded Toler, who never established herself as a political or school leader, was unable to make inroads in her campaign to unseat Stuart, who serves on the Metropolitan Planning Organization and other regional boards.
Toler's husband, Randy Toler, a candidate in the District 7 race, also was unsuccessful, with roughly 10 percent of the eight-way vote.
Person, who challenged Valdes, was able to call on longtime district employees and retirees for support. He had endorsements from the teachers' union and was recommended by the Tampa Bay Times.
He entered the race after his wife, Laurie Rodriguez, lost her job at Erwin Technical College in a departmental downsizing. Rodriguez, with Person's help, filed a grievance and argued that she and her fellow teachers were needed, but were being replaced with part-time employees. The board in May restored her job, with Valdes casting a dissenting vote.
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Valdes, well-known among school employees and especially in the Town 'N Country area schools, said the vote would be largely a referendum on how well she had done her job.
Often a lone voice in board discussions, Valdes has long been an advocate for Hispanic and Spanish-speaking students and staff, and students of all ethnic backgrounds who have trouble meeting the requirements for graduation. While on the campaign trail Tuesday, she posted a photo on Facebook in which she stood with students at a bus stop on Himes Avenue, placing a call to complain that a construction project had made the site unsafe.
"This is why I do what I do," she wrote.
In advocating for Latin interests, however, she incurred criticism from some in the black community. The Sentinel-Bulletin newspaper did not endorse her.
The one clear winner of the evening, Stuart, celebrated at a restaurant in Carrollwood while watching the returns anxiously in the Valdes-Person race.
"I'm having a good time," Stuart said. "We're excited. Four more years."
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or email@example.com. Follow @marlenesokol