Local and statewide political controversies over education are contributing to a potential 2024 melee over a countywide Hillsborough School Board seat.
So far, five people have filed to challenge incumbent Lynn Gray, now completing her second term.
The race and office are non-partisan, but the arguments over issues the board has faced aren’t.
Gray is a Democrat, but three of the challengers have previously been listed as Democrats on the county party’s web site — Alene Atkins, Sonja Brookins and Ashley Hartfield-Viewins.
None of those three responded to repeated phone calls and emails to the numbers and addresses listed on their filing papers for comment, but at least two, Brookins and Hartfield-Viewins, are Black.
Gray acknowledges they may have been motivated in part by the board’s difficult, divisive debate over converting under-used Just Elementary School into an early learning center, a move opposed by some residents of its heavily minority neighborhood.
Gray was one of four members who voted in favor of the move, but because she had previously said she was undecided, she said she “was perceived as the swing vote.” Her seat is the only countywide seat up for election in 2024, and hence the only one available to some of the candidates.
One of the other two challengers, Karen Bendorf, is a Plant City Republican who said she was motivated to run partly because she opposes the board’s advocacy of tax increase proposals and stances it has taken in proclamations, including one celebrating Pride Month.
The fifth challenger, Jen Flebotte, didn’t list a phone number or home address on filing papers and didn’t respond by deadline to emails seeking comment. Her campaign treasurer, Nancy Watkins, normally works only with Republicans.
Asked why she thinks so many candidates have filed against her, Gray cited Gov. Ron DeSantis’s controversial moves on education policy and the conservative “Moms for Liberty” movement opposing some books and curriculum on topics including race and gender.
“Education is the front and center of every newspaper, every news show,” said Gray, formerly a long-time teacher at several levels. “The governor has made it a top issue and I think there’s reaction to that among both Democrats and Republicans. I think it’s a lot of reactive behavior.”
The turmoil in public education, she said, means “You need someone with a strong background in teaching and learning.”
Bendorf is a first-time candidate for office who teaches social studies at Tomlin Middle School and called herself “a mom who has kids in the school district.”
She said she believes the district should eliminate bureaucratic waste before raising taxes but wasn’t yet ready to give specifics — “We have plenty of funds to pay teachers well, but mismanage money.”
She said she isn’t certain but might favor making school board races partisan.