The Hillsborough County School District is the nation’s seventh-largest, and it faces a host of challenges over the coming year, from the safe reopening of schools amid the coronavirus pandemic to plugging budget gaps, restoring cash reserves and addressing 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. Elections for Districts 1, 3 and 5 are open to all registered voters in those communities, while District 7 is elected countywide. The general election is Nov. 3.
District 1 (northwest county): Nadia Combs
First-time candidate Nadia Combs placed first in the four-way August primary, outpolling the incumbent who outspent her 8-1. That reflects the strength of her message and the resourcefulness she would bring to the School Board.
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 strategy 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 is rightly focused on a safe reopening of classrooms, and understands the importance of in-person learning to bridge the achievement gap and to give students the social nurturing they need.
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 46-year-old chief executive of the local contractors association wants the district to be more innovative in addressing the academic achievement gap. He also is rightly concerned with controlling expenses.
Combs, though, has a rich understanding of what’s required to create a more positive learning environment. She wants stronger support systems for students and teachers, better communication with parents and a new level of accountability within the district. Her commitment to advocate for schools in the poorest neighborhoods could be key in turning around under-performing schools. Combs 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
Jessica Vaughn is that rare candidate who can talk specifics without losing sight of the bigger picture. Her teaching experience, sound agenda and advocacy on behalf of students and parents make her the strongest choice for this north county seat.
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 has a broad agenda for improving reading, directing more resources to needy schools and better assigning teachers according to their strengths. Vaughn sees a narrow role for charter schools, yet views competition from private providers as an opportunity for the public system to sharpen its own scholastic offerings.
Vaughn can speak first-hand about the classroom experience and the needs of students and teachers alike. Her ideas for boosting reading scores, ensuring school equity and safeguarding the budget reflect a balanced mindset the school board needs. 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.
Her opponent, Mitch Thrower, 52, an administrator at the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, would focus on school safety, budget savings and public-private partnerships. These are key priorities, but his agenda and policy depth pale by comparison.
Vaughn has more relevant experience and is much more conversant on issues at the core of education. She is adamant that parents deserve to be better informed about academic choices the school district offers. Vaughn is candid and seems a natural in a leadership role, and she would be a strong voice for the county’s northern suburbs. The Tampa Bay Times recommends Jessica Vaughn for Hillsborough County School Board, District 3.
District 5 (central county): Henry “Shake” Washington
The winner of this race faces no greater issue than confronting the lagging problem of under-performing schools in this heavily-minority, inner-city district. That requires a school board member with a range of abilities, from being familiar with the school system and the community and having strong team-building skills. Henry “Shake” Washington offers the greatest hope for a better beginning in District 5.
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. Within the school bureaucracy, he’s been a mentor who knows how to get things done. And Washington is plugged into the community, and he is seen as a motivating force.
These are essential qualities for District 5 as Hillsborough embarks on yet another initiative to boost academic achievement at under-performing schools. Three-fourths of the lowest performers across the county are inside District 5, and turning them around requires effort across a broad front, from addressing implicit racial bias in the classroom to providing more academic support services to help at-risk students succeed.
The incumbent, Tammy Shamburger, offered a promising vision during her winning campaign in 2016. She has been a strong proponent of educational equity. But Shamburger, 45, made a quick transformation from outsider to insider, and she shows a patience for change and tin ear for transparency that doesn’t serve students or the taxpaying public at large.
Washington is a product of the Hillsborough system, and he will need to adapt in this new role from administrator to policymaker. If he delivers on his promise to bring a fresh set of eyes and higher expectations, then opportunities could improve for thousands of Hillsborough’s most vulnerable children. The Tampa Bay Times recommends Henry “Shake” Washington for Hillsborough County School Board, District 5.
District 7 (countywide): Lynn Gray
Lynn Gray’s advocacy for students, exacting eye as a board member and professional commitment to teaching make her by far the best choice in this race.
Gray has been a serious and constructive force on the School Board since first winning election in 2016. The 68-year-old has worked for nearly 40 years as a teacher and department head in the public and private school systems across Tampa Bay. Her vast classroom experience gives her a relevant perspective on the emerging challenges facing a large, urban district. She is a creative problem-solver and a collaborative board member who helps keep the district moving in the right direction.
Gray has demonstrated her concern for the neediest schools, and she wants the district to better target its efforts with under-achieving students in poor, minority neighborhoods. She has been a strong guardian of equity in spending and student discipline, and her deep teaching experience gives her a rounded view of the support that’s needed to make the classrooms succeed. Gray is also visible and accessible, which is important for a board member overseeing Hillsborough’s largest employer.
Her opponent, Sally A. Harris, 70, who was elected to the School Board in 2014, and defeated in 2018, didn’t leave a meaningful mark and offers little now for a return to office. With the school system facing budgetary, academic and public health pressures, this is the worst time possible for idle leadership.
Gray is a steady, competent voice who understands the civic value of a strong public school system. She is a doer who puts politics aside and whose sense of public service reflects well on the voters. The Tampa Bay Times recommends Lynn Gray for Hillsborough County School Board, District 7.
Candidates not recommended by the editorial board are offered an opportunity to reply. School Board candidates may send replies of up to 150 words by 5 p.m. Oct. 9 to Editor of Editorials Graham Brink at email@example.com.
Editorials are the institutional voice 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