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Hillsborough School Board should have met on new reopening plan, member says

District leaders say a board meeting was not necessary.

TAMPA — Hillsborough County School Board member Lynn Gray has joined two other board members in criticizing district leadership for striking a deal with the state to reopen campuses without a public board discussion and vote.

Gray, who is running for re-election Tuesday in a districtwide seat, said she asked school board attorney Jim Porter to call for a meeting, and is making the request again.

Related: Hillsborough drops school reopening plan under state pressure

“The issue needs transparency,” she said Friday. “The public needs to hear from us and from the superintendent. I want the meeting and I want it out front.”

Similarly, board members Karen Perez and Tamara Shamburger said Thursday that the board should have met publicly to approve the final decision on when and how to open schools. Both have argued strongly against opening school buildings to students until the county’s rate of coronavirus transmission is sufficiently low. More than 30,000 people in Hillsborough County have contracted the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 since March. The positivity rate was last measured at 9.38 percent, according to the county health department.

Superintendent Addison Davis announced Thursday that, after discussions with the state Department of Education, Hillsborough schools will open Aug. 24 for all-virtual instruction and an in-person option will begin on Aug. 31. This schedule complies with a state order that calls for in-person instruction to be available for all students who need it by the end of the month.

Both Davis and Porter told the Tampa Bay Times that a board meeting would not have been necessary.

Here is why:

The board voted on July 23 to approve the reopening plan, with in-person and virtual options, and a start date of Aug. 24. The state accepted that plan.

After listening to medical experts, the board voted to delay implementation of the in-person portion of the plan for four weeks. But the state did not accept that arrangement, meaning the official plan was the one from July 23.

“The board did their job, and they did their job on July 23,” district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said.

Gray, however, is concerned in part about the appearance, with Election Day less than a week away, that board members were effectively shielded from what would have been a highly controversial vote.

Related: How coronavirus is spreading in Florida

”I think they were trying to protect us from ourselves, because of the election,” Gray said. “But now people will be thinking, what good is the School Board if they can’t take the vote? And when you don’t have transparency and it’s not in the public view, then that becomes the story.”

Porter said he understands Gray’s concern about appearances. But, he said, “I think the business of the board is to vote when there is a reason to vote. As there was no vote, there was no reason to have a meeting.” Had they met without a reason, he said, they could just as easily be accused of grandstanding. “If there is any sort of finger-pointing, it goes to Tallahassee,” he said.

No one from the board attended a news conference that Davis called Thursday afternoon to discuss the new timetable and safety protocols that schools will adopt.

In addition to Gray, Shamburger and Steve Cona III are on Tuesday’s election ballots. Board member Cindy Stuart is leaving the board at the end of her term. But she is running in an open Democratic primary for Clerk of Court.

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