The Hillsborough County School Board oversees the seventh-largest school system in the country, and the district faces big challenges in the coming years, from strengthening its budget and improving lagging schools to addressing teacher pay, student discipline and enrollment growth. Three seats on the seven-member board are on the Aug. 23 primary. If no candidate in the District 4 or District 6 races wins a majority, the top two vote-getters proceed to the general election on Nov. 8. Board members are elected to four-year terms and paid $46,773 annually. The race is nonpartisan and open to all voters.
District 2 (south Hillsborough): Stacy Hahn
Voters have a choice between two strong candidates who have proven their support for improving education. The incumbent, Stacy Hahn, though, is more realistic about Hillsborough’s fiscal picture, and her no-nonsense style is a welcome jolt to a big bureaucracy.
Hahn, 55, is a 30-year educator who was first elected to the school board in 2018. Her experience as a classroom teacher, university instructor and director of collegiate-level professional development programs gives her a wide lens of how the educational system should work.
Hahn has been a leading voice for high standards and accountability. She comes to data-driven conclusions over how to improve under-performing schools, boost early literacy and better serve students with special needs. She opposes the property tax increase for schools on the primary ballot, arguing that Hillsborough has work to do in reestablishing its finances and public faith. And she is direct about how Hillsborough should challenge charters and private schools — by becoming a more attractive choice of its own.
Challenger Damaris Allen, 44, disagrees with Hahn on the signature issue this election. She supports the tax increase, saying that additional money for teacher and staff salaries is essential to retain a talented workforce and to fund basic programs in the arts and career education. She would work to increase academic achievement in lagging schools by boosting after-school programs and strengthening community partnerships.
Allen is a thoughtful candidate whose decade of work as a PTA volunteer demonstrates her commitment to the school system. She and Hahn share many of the same concerns over budgeting and the need to ensure school equity countywide.
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Hahn’s exacting eye, though and her insistence on high expectations bring incredible value. She does her homework and puts students first.
The Tampa Bay Times recommends Stacy Hahn for Hillsborough County School Board, District 2.
District 4 (east Hillsborough): Hunter Gambrell
Hunter Gambrell is the standout in this three-way race for an open seat representing east Hillsborough. He knows the district and has common-sense ideas for improving the school system and the district’s bottom line.
Gambrell, 35, graduated from Plant City High School before earning a business degree in 2015 from the University of Florida. A former aide and transportation specialist in the Hillsborough County school system, Gambrell has worked since 2020 at the Polk County School District, where he currently serves as senior coordinator of workforce operations.
That work history and Gambrell’s knowledge of the Hillsborough system make him uniquely qualified. He supports the school tax on the August ballot as a means for retaining teachers, but says the district needs to look for savings, especially among administrative positions, and craft a plan to better use under-capacity schools.
Gambrell would improve underperforming schools by addressing the root causes of underachievement — for example, directing social workers or added transportation if that were the problem. He insists the public schools need to become more attractive options than charters and that he would bring parents with differing viewpoints into the system. “We will never win anyone over by ostracizing them,” he said.
Patricia “Patti” Rendon, 51, is the executive director in Florida for The Columbus Organization, a group that serves individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. A longtime activist with the PTA and school booster clubs, Rendon has a solid grasp of the school system and the legislative process. She opposes the school tax referendum, saying now is not the time. She would examine new technologies and teaching methods to boost reading. Rendon also says the district needs to focus on helping special needs students and their families.
Danielle Smalley, 36, a charter school administrator, supports the tax but talks about “conscious budgeting.”
Gambrell has the most compelling, rounded agenda, and his straight talk and reasonableness would make him an effective voice for this growing district.
The Tampa Bay Times recommends Hunter Gambrell for Hillsborough County School Board District 4.
District 6 (countywide): Karen Perez
With public education becoming the latest front in Florida’s culture wars, Karen Perez is the kind of level head this school board needs. She is a rational voice who keeps the focus on students, and she deserves another term.
Perez, 58, is a social worker and mental health specialist who was first elected to the school board in 2018. Her calm, methodical approach has succeeded in bringing more transparency to school district operations. Perez has been a leader in holding the administration accountable, and in relaying concerns from families when and where the school system falls short.
Perez opposed putting the school tax on the ballot, saying residents were already stretched financially and that the district needed more time to demonstrate its financial house was in order. She supports raising teacher salaries, though, and would look for savings by renegotiating vendor contracts, reducing the number of administrators and examining better uses for under-capacity schools.
Perez was a strong and consistent advocate even before the outbreak of COVID-19 for providing students with greater mental health and counseling services. The nation is only now beginning to grapple with the learning loss and social isolation that many children experienced from being kept home during the pandemic. Another term would enable Perez to be a guiding light on this issue. She is also strong on school safety and ensuring equal opportunities across the diverse district.
Alysha “Aly Marie” Legge, 35, also opposes the tax, saying now is not the time. She would scrub the budget, support consolidating under-capacity schools and work more with community leaders and businesses to provide school programs, apprenticeships and other resources to assist needy students.
Legge is endorsed by some conservative organizations, including Moms for Liberty, and has placed parental rights at the center of her platform. Parents have always had rights in the school system; what Hillsborough doesn’t need is to get sidetracked by phony wars over books, curriculum and other political crusades. Roshaun Gendrett, 44, a nonprofit administrator, is also on the ballot.
Perez is a thoughtful, committed board member who has demonstrated her commitment to equal opportunity across the district. She can be a voice of the forgotten who’s not afraid to put the bureaucracy on the spot.
The Tampa Bay Times recommends Karen Perez for Hillsborough County School Board District 6.
The recommendation process
Before making a recommendation, the Times Editorial Board asks candidates to fill out questionnaires and sit for an interview. The process can also include running criminal and civil background checks, interviewing candidates’ colleagues and employers, reviewing voting records and financial disclosures and examining their past and current positions on relevant issues.
Candidates not recommended by the editorial board are offered an opportunity to reply. Judicial candidates may send replies of up to 150 words by 5 p.m. Aug. 4 to Editor of Editorials Graham Brink at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.