The Hillsborough County School District is the nation’s seventh-largest, and it faces a host of challenges over the coming year, from how to safely reopen schools amid the coronavirus pandemic to budget gaps and achievement disparities between white and minority students. School Board members are elected to four-year terms and paid $44,749 annually. The races are nonpartisan, and elections for Districts 1, 3 and 5 are open to all registered voters in those communities, while District 7 is elected countywide. If no candidate wins a majority in the Aug. 18 primary, the top two vote-getters face off in the Nov. 3 general election.
District 1 (northwest county): Nadia Combs
Nadia Combs is the most promising candidate in any Hillsborough School Board race this year.
A former Hillsborough middle school teacher who now owns and operates a private tutoring company, Combs has an unparalleled grasp of the county’s educational needs and a clear plan for improving the classroom experience. She wants a back-to-basics approach that focuses on the fundamentals of learning. That includes stronger support for pre-K programs, more robust recruitment of quality teachers and a curriculum that improves academic performance by engaging and challenging students.
Combs, 50, is a passionate advocate of the public school system. A former middle school teacher of the year, she understands what it takes to succeed in the classroom. She rightly says the district needs to offer parents a clearer path toward safely reopening schools, and she shows a regard for accountability befitting Hillsborough’s biggest employer.
The incumbent, Steve Cona, has made some strong connections with the schools in this area, which includes Town ‘N Country and Westchase, since he was elected in 2018. The 45-year-old chief executive of the local contractors association wants the district to be more innovative in addressing the academic achievement gap. Bill Person, 69, who served the district for nearly four decades as a teacher, principal and senior administrator, is a plain-spoken champion of educational equity. No candidate has spoken more movingly of the need to improve lagging schools in poor, minority neighborhoods. A fourth candidate, Ben “Floridaman” Greene, 30, is not running much of a campaign.
Combs has a compelling vision and a handling of the details. She brings the perfect mix of classroom experience, a head for business and a laser focus on improving academic outcomes. The Tampa Bay Times recommends Nadia Combs for Hillsborough County School Board, District 1.
District 3 (northeast county): Jessica Vaughn
With six candidates seeking this open seat, voters need to separate the wheat from the chaff. Jessica Vaughn stands out for her teaching experience, sound priorities and clear comfort in taking a leadership role.
Vaughn, 43, is a former full-time elementary school teacher (now substitute) and longtime resident of the district, which includes the northern suburbs of Lutz and the New Tampa area. She traces her decision to run on seeing candidates with little education experience using the School Board as a political stepping stone. Vaughn has a broad agenda for improving reading, directing more resources to needy schools and better using teachers according to their strengths.
Vaughn rightly sees a narrow role for charter schools, and she calls these privatizing efforts an opportunity for the school district to fine-tune its own offerings and become more competitive. She supports greater investment in schools hard-hit by racial and income segregation, and restorative discipline policies that help to curb suspensions and arrests and stem the school-to-prison pipeline.
Jennifer Hill, 46, taught technology in elementary school for more than 15 years. She has concrete ideas for making teachers more effective in the classroom, and her appeals for stronger community engagement could net more resources for struggling students in poor neighborhoods. Leo Haggerty, 67, who over three decades in the district has worked as a social studies teacher and basketball coach, says he has the contacts and experience to help parents navigate the school system. Alexandra Gilmore, 39, a substitute teacher in mathematics and science, wants to make the school bureaucracy more responsive and form tighter relationships between students and parents. Mitch Thrower, 52, the administrative manager at the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, would focus on school safety, budget savings and public-private partnerships. Rick Warrener, 75, a retired bank controller, vows to be “a loud and angry voice” for additional funding from Tallahassee.
Vaughn is more conversant on the issues that matter. She is candid about what works and what doesn’t, and would bring an exacting eye and higher expectations to a bureaucracy that too often has waited out good ideas. The Tampa Bay Times recommends Jessica Vaughn for Hillsborough County School Board, District 3.
District 5 (central county): Henry “Shake” Washington
Tammy Shamburger offered high hopes on first being elected in 2016. But the shine has dulled, and it’s time for a change. A former schools administrator, Henry “Shake” Washington is the best choice for re-energizing this inner-city district.
Shamburger, 45, has been a strong proponent of educational equity, which should be expected of a board member whose district houses three-fourths of the county’s lowest-performing schools. But the one-term board member has transformed from outsider to insider almost overnight. She sounds like more of a cheerleader for the district’s evolving equity plan than a board member intent on holding the bureaucracy accountable. Shamburger set a poor example on transparency during her time as board chairman. And she insists School Board members need to be in office eight to 12 years to make a difference. What child in the system has 12 years to wait for their School Board to get it right?
Washington, 71, is a retired schools administrator who over 42 years with the district served as a teacher, coach, principal and area superintendent. He knows the challenges of this Tampa-area district firsthand and understands the support individual campuses need to improve academic performance. Washington is well-regarded and can bring parents and the school district together. That greater sense of teamwork and shared responsibility is key for turning around under-performing schools.
Selena Ward, 46, a former high school language arts teacher in California who now substitutes in Hillsborough, has solid ideas for improving early childhood education and for giving struggling schools the added resources they need. Elvis Piggott, 32, would address racial disparities in discipline and the needs of students with physical and emotional problems.
Washington is a product of the Hillsborough system, so only time will tell whether he would play a parental role or act more independently. It’s certainly worth a shot. The Tampa Bay Times recommends Henry “Shake” Washington for Hillsborough County School Board, District 5.
District 7 (countywide): Lynn Gray
Lynn Gray has been a serious, sensible voice on the School Board since first winning election in 2016, and she deserves another term.
Gray, 68, worked for nearly 40 years as a teacher and department head in the public and private school systems across the Tampa Bay area. Her classroom experience and post-graduate work in education management give Gray a solid foundation for making smart policy. She is particularly attuned to the needs of high-poverty schools, and she understands the connection between supporting teachers and boosting academic performance.
Angela Schroden, 47, a literacy consultant and adjunct professor at the University of South Florida, is an energetic and engaged first-time candidate who brings a rich perspective from her long career as a teacher and administrator. She is a strong advocate for addressing the unique needs of every child and ensuring an equity of resources across the campuses. Jeffery Alex James Johnson, 37, who manages a Tampa Bay neighborhood initiative, would strengthen ties with nonprofits to help lower-performing schools. Sally A. Harris, 70, who was elected to the School Board in 2014, and defeated in 2018, has nothing to offer against a much stronger field.
Gray is a steady voice at the helm who makes students the priority. She is accessible, does her homework and doesn’t play games. The Tampa Bay Times recommends Lynn Gray for Hillsborough County School Board, District 7.
Recommendations are made by Editorial Board of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news