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Meet the candidates for Hillsborough School Board District 1

Incumbent Steve Cona III has three challengers.

TAMPA — District 1 for the Hillsborough County School Board extends from the northwestern corner of the county into Town ‘N Country and West Tampa. The seat has been held for the last two years by Steve Cona III, who replaced Susan Valdes when she left mid-term for the Legislature. Cona has three challengers: career educator and political newcomer Nadia Combs; Benjamin “Floridaman” Greene, who did not take part in our candidate survey; and Bill Person, a retired educator and administrator who is making his third bid for a School Board seat.

School Board members earn $44,750 a year and serve four-year terms. The Tampa Bay Times sent all of the candidates two sets of questions about their backgrounds and positions on key issues. Here is what they told us, edited for length. Their names link to their campaign websites.

Candidate responses for Districts 3, where there is an open race to replace Cindy Stuart; District 5, where Tamara Shamburger is seeking a second term; and countywide District 7, where Lynn Gray is running for re-election, will be published on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Aug. 18 is election day for these nonpartisan contests, with mail-in voting soon to begin. In cases where there is no majority winner, run-off elections will happen on Nov. 3.

Nadia Combs, 50

Nadia Combs [ Courtesy of Nadia Combs campaign ]

Occupation: Owns a tutoring service

Education: Bachelor’s in social science education, master’s in educational leadership, both from University of South Florida

What are the three most pressing issues for the school district, and how would you address them?

Student safety, social inequality and attracting and retaining quality instructors.

With the threat of Covid-19, we need to make sure that our students, teachers and staff are safe. This may look like a staggered schedule for students and possibly students working part of the day online. We need to have more consistency and quality of instruction available on our eLearning platform.

We must address the social inequality among our district and individual schools. Each child that attends Hillsborough Public Schools needs to be able to receive a quality education that will lead to opportunities in the future, regardless of the school they attend. We can achieve that by providing a back-to-the-basics approach that focuses less on testing and more on teaching. We need to create a classroom and school environment that focuses on the importance of teaching children the love of learning, and focus on the fundamental skills that students are lacking. We need to first do that by providing an early educational program and have more consistency in our pre-K programs. As students go through their schooling, there need to be more options for our students. Increased options of IB, AP and dual enrollment programs need to be available for those students who want to attend college. Also, we need to increase and expand our technical and vocational programs.

Our district needs to recruit, hire and retain quality instructors. We need to make sure that as we place a freeze on hiring, we are not losing those quality instructors to charter and private schools. In addition, we have to support our teachers more by providing them more support from our parents, community and businesses.

What approach is needed to improve academic performance at the district’s lowest-performing schools? Does that require additional resources? If so, where would you get them?

We need to return to a back-to-the-basics approach to teaching and move away from just teaching to the test. Hillsborough County Public Schools needs to be at the forefront of the implementation of the new B.E.S.T. Standards that will move away from the Common Core curriculum. Our district needs to recruit the best teachers who have experience working in the lowest performing schools. I will be active and present to increase the per-pupil allocation and increase funding for our public schools by advocating to our state and local representatives. Our goal for the lowest performing schools is to recruit the highest quality instructors, smaller class sizes and provide curriculum that increases academic ability and propels students upwards with curriculum that engages and challenges our students.

How would you improve reading scores, especially in the lower grades?

We need to increase and expand pre-K instruction throughout Hillsborough County. In addition, we need to ensure that we provide quality instruction in our programs. This will occur when we increase accountability for these programs. In the lowest performing schools, we need to decrease the class size to provide small group instruction. One of the biggest challenges that occurs is when a child is being taught on grade level text when they are reading well below level. Based on a diagnostic evaluation for each child, curriculum needs to provide to meet the child’s academic needs, not just their academic grade. Our curriculum needs to focus on a mix of phonics and sight-based reading. In addition, we need to recruit, retain and train the highest quality teachers.

What is the appropriate role for charter schools in Hillsborough?

The role of charter schools needs to be a secondary choice for Hillsborough County school students. My goal is to use my expertise, knowledge and experience to continue to improve academic standards and increase parental options in our public schools. I oppose for-profit charter schools. There are several quality public charter schools in the Tampa Bay area. We need to make sure that parents are informed of the charter schools that are providing a quality education and ones that are performing below level. This can occur by making charter schools more accountable and providing transparency for our parents.

How would you address the racial and ethnic disparities in student discipline and academic achievement?

First, we need to gather and analyze data from the schools that are challenged by social and academic disparities. We need to analyze that data and get to the root of these disparities. After analyzing the data, we then need to create an individual action plan for each school. Teachers need to be trained and must provide support with effective classroom management techniques. Positive reinforcement, respect and accountability need to be at the center of each school. We need to have district policies that are consistent. The administration, area supervisor, instructional and non-instructional leaders in a school need to create an action plan that meets the ethnic and academic achievement challenges of each individual school.

Does Hillsborough need to consolidate some campuses and facilities? If so, where and how would you go about it?

As a member of the School Board, my goal is to increase the number of students who currently attend Hillsborough public schools. We need to attract our charter and private school students back to our public schools. We need to attain this goal by providing students a variety of academic choices, including expanding our IB, AP and dual enrollment students. Also, Hillsborough County Schools needs to increase our technical and vocational programs. The goal would not be to consolidate campuses, but to increase student enrollment throughout our schools.

• • •

Steve Cona III, 45

Steve Cona III [ Courtesy of the Steve Cona campaign ]

Occupation: President of a builders’ and contractors’ association

Education: Bachelor’s in mass communications, University of South Florida

What are the three most pressing issues for the school district, and how would you address them?

First: student achievement and equitable access. The achievement gap could not be more pronounced than it is right now. We are anticipating a significant learning loss in our students due to COVID-19, especially among the most vulnerable populations. It is therefore critical that adequate funding, resources, and instruction techniques are in place to bring each student back on track. As a district, we must seek out new partnerships with community leaders and businesses, as we did with WWE Superstar Titus O’Neil’s partnership with Sligh Middle School and The Brink Foundation in Town ‘n’ Country.

Second, the teacher shortage. It can’t be said enough, our teachers are our number one asset. They are the bedrock of our education system, and we must do more to support and invest in them. We must work to attract and recruit the highest quality individuals to join our team. We should look closer at teacher salaries, benefits, and professional development opportunities to ensure that they are getting the rewards they deserve. The district’s medical benefit plan is deemed too expensive for families. One solution is for the district to look at a self-funded model to expand coverage for employees and their families. We must also continue to reduce some of the burden that teachers face with regards to end-of-course exams. They should be able to focus on delivering quality educational instruction for all, rather than tests that will determine their pay.

Third, funding. We must continue working with our state legislative leaders to increase the base student allocation, restore our millage to pre-recession levels, and to be better stewards of the dollars we have. Several of our schools are at only half-capacity, and we must take a comprehensive look at adjustments that can be made to ensure we are utilizing every tax-payer dollar in the best way possible. As we are elected to serve the people of Hillsborough County, it is incumbent upon us to make sure that our schools are a safe learning environment, our teachers are well compensated, and we have adequate classroom resources. We must find alternative sources of revenue to help fund this, including utilizing more community partnerships to make this happen without having to burden taxpayers with additional costs.

What approach is needed to improve academic performance at the district’s lowest-performing schools? Does that require additional resources? If so, where would you get them?

It is the common assumption that our lowest-performing schools should have kitchen-sink approaches, with comprehensive plans that address every aspect of the school. I believe that the successful turnaround of these schools should begin with a clear vision, a list of key priorities, and attainable goals that can be immediately put into action. It is critical we address barriers to learning, such as a lack of adequate classroom materials, and be strategic in hiring to ensure we stay committed to our goal. We must also address nonacademic barriers to learning such as hunger, homelessness, and lack of access to quality health care by connecting students and families to community organizations.

How would you improve reading scores, especially in the lower grades?

High-quality early education programs provide an opportunity to build a strong foundation for pre-reading and school readiness skills. I believe that prekindergarten standards should be seamlessly aligned with K-12 standards and that the state should invest in mandatory VPK for all students. Investing in our students early will set them on the right track for successful life-long learning. We must continue to advocate to the Florida Legislature to assure appropriate funding and policies are in place to meet the needs of our youngest learners.

What is the appropriate role for charter schools in Hillsborough?

Charter schools are public schools and provide a valuable resource to our district. Not all students learn the same way, and we should allow parents to decide which learning environment is best for their child. Both charters and traditional public schools have the same goal in mind — to provide quality education in a safe environment — and should be held to the same standards. We must acknowledge the role charter schools play in helping us meet the growing demand within the district, and we should allow schools to be inventive in finding new ways to educate, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 shakeup. So long as they meet our rigorous standards, we should embrace charter schools that are bringing value to our district and the families and students they serve.

How would you address the racial and ethnic disparities in student discipline and academic achievement?

As a district we must foster positive school climates that can help to engage all students in learning by preventing problem behaviors and intervening effectively to support struggling and at-risk students. Our discipline policies should be clear, appropriate and consistently applied to help students improve behavior, increase engagement and boost achievement. We must continue to build staff capacity and continuously evaluate discipline practices to ensure fairness and equity and promote achievement for all students. District 1 is a great example of this success. Over 60 percent of the schools in District 1 are Title 1 and we embrace and celebrate diversity. Our students receive consistent support and academic rigor that allows them to flourish. Over 70 percent of our schools are A and B, with zero D or F schools.

Does Hillsborough need to consolidate some campuses and facilities? If so, where and how would you go about it?

Asset management and resource allocation will play a major role in the future success of our district. The district is one of the largest landowners in the county and we need to ensure we are making the best use of our campuses and facilities. Streamlining our spending on low-impact properties will enable us to use those funds to invest in teachers and other programs and projects.

• • •

Bill Person, 69

Bill Person [ Courtesy of Bill Person ]

Occupation: Retired educator, school district administrator

Education: Bachelor’s, University of South Florida; master’s, University of Tampa

What are the three most pressing issues for the school district, and how would you address them?

Currently, the most pressing issue facing the district is the safe and secure reopening of the district due to the March 2020 closing of the entire district due to the nationwide COVID-19 pandemic. I would address this pressing challenge by closely monitoring national and state directives from both health officials and government leaders, specifically in the public education arena, to be fully aware of both general and specific threats, actions and mitigating directives. Most importantly, I would ensure the superintendent and staff and School Board members are communicating accurately the district’s action plan to all stakeholders, especially parents, students, all district employees, local health officials and governmental agencies, including media.

The second most pressing issue is the need to address the current validity and availability of e-learning and virtual instruction along with the increasing problem of the digital divide of technology available to economically disadvantaged students and families. I will actively address this challenge with the superintendent and fellow board members, while ensuring planned strategies and specific activities are communicated with all stakeholders previously mentioned in my responses to this questionnaire. All pressing issues that were of the highest priority before the emergency closing of schools due to the COVID-19 threat remain critically important and need to be addressed. Some of the greatest threats continue to be the unbridled expansion of for-profit managed charter schools, vouchers (“scholarships”) and the increasing movement toward privatization of public school educational support personnel and services. The emphasis must be on the PEOPLE of public education and not on the PROFIT of public education going to the private sector.

What approach is needed to improve academic performance at the district’s lowest-performing schools? Does that require additional resources? If so, where would you get them?

A reallocation of existing revenue sources, in addition to securing more funding from other sources is critical in improving academic performance in our lowest performing schools. One very important strategy that needs to be undertaken is the need to curtail and fully challenge the intentional “defunding” of traditional Florida public school district by both national and state political leaders. Bleeding funds initially earmarked for public school districts and funneling those funds to the private sector via expanded for-profit managed charter schools, vouchers and privatization greatly diminishes the revenue flow to all students and schools but especially to badly needed low performing schools and students.


How would you improve reading scores, especially in the lower grades?

The current DOE directive and Florida law dictates that students unable to meet requirements in the area of reading are initially retained at the third-grade level. This needs to be modified, along with a greater need to expand and fund (see defunding) VPK programs that place the highest priority on reading. Mandatory summer reading programs and extended-day programs at grades 1-3, and even pre-K can be required to expand services for those little ones struggling to read.

What is the appropriate role for charter schools in Hillsborough?

Community run, nonprofit charter schools with a for-real school board composed of local citizens truly is an acceptable augmentation to instruction programs and offerings in Florida public schools. Hillsborough County has many long-operating nonprofit, community charter schools. A large number of students attend charter schools like Pepin Academies that focus on exceptional students and their special needs. The for-profit managed charter schools differ greatly in that they are profit-driven and most have a priority to operate with the intent to ensure Florida provided educational funds flow into the accounts of the management corporation. The schools operate, in my opinion, to first make a profit. Roughly 11 percent of both Hillsborough County and Florida public school students attend all types of charter schools, both profit managed and nonprofit, and community run schools. All these schools accept students via application and many quickly dismiss troubled, exceptional and low-performing students back to traditional public schools.

How would you address the racial and ethnic disparities in student discipline and academic achievement?

As previously stated, redistribution of financial resources and challenging those that funnel those funds away from public school districts is key in addressing equity to ensure academic achievement. Additionally, the staffing patterns and district policy and procedures in hiring of new teachers and transfer of seasoned teachers affects instruction and student achievement in disadvantaged schools. Often, the classrooms with long-term, uncertified teachers or substitute teachers, instructional vacancies and teachers with the least experience are found in the schools needing the most capable and highest-performing instructional staff to affect improved academic performance. Current teacher hiring and transfer procedure can be changed to place a priority on staffing to these schools prior to hiring and transferring of teachers to less challenged school communities and student populations. Greater attention needs to be given to teacher resolution at the classroom level prior to administrative referral. Greater attention needs to be given to staff involved in alternatives to suspension such as threat assessment, positive behavior intervention, more parental communication and use of health, social and psychological services and support, both school district and community-based.

Does Hillsborough need to consolidate some campuses and facilities? If so, where and how would you go about it?

As a district director I was directly responsible for overseeing all district actions in meeting state mandated requirements for class-size reduction. I also was responsible for student assignment to all schools in the district and the full compliance of student assignment as it relates to student diversity and equity prior to and after court-ordered supervision of district all desegregation activities. Additionally, I was responsible for all internal district school choice activities and I authored and the district’s Controlled Choice Student Assignment Plan submitted to the local federal judge and also to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court Appeals in Atlanta. Until the recession of 2008, the district experienced student growth increases yearly going back to 1983. At times, this growth was exceeding 7,000 new students a year over the previous year. One year, we opened 13 new or repurposed schools requiring intense student attendance boundary changes involving contested community parental meetings. Now, the district has this type of student growth only in the south county area. Most of these issues I have been directly involved with in my 35 year career.

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