Hillsborough County School Board elections are always important. After all, the board oversees policies for more than 200,000 students, 15,000 teachers and 270 schools.
With 26,000 employees, the district is the county’s largest employer.
Entrusted with the welfare of our children as well as a $2.9 billion budget, School Board decisions have enormous impact.
And this year’s elections could be particularly consequential.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia’s job could be at stake.
Veteran board members April Griffin, who is running for her third term, and Susan Valdes are relentless Elia critics. Cindy Stuart, elected two years ago, is more measured but also often critical.
There are two sides here. Elia is a hard-charger who likes to get things done her way. She’s had her lapses, particularly in the handling of the exceptional student education program, marred by two student deaths, and the oversight of the transportation department, plagued by poor employee morale and an antiquated bus fleet.
But Elia also has accomplished much in her nine years as superintendent, and Hillsborough is widely regarded as one of the state’s most effective and innovative school systems.
Voters should look for candidates who won’t be a rubber stamp for the administration, but who will also respect the superintendent’s role as the school system’s CEO.
The races are nonpartisan. The primary is Aug. 26.
Three candidates are running to replace Candy Olson, who’s served five terms and is not running for re-election. The district includes South Tampa.
Michael Weston, who ran for the board two years ago, is a former mathematics teacher with a jaundiced view of the district. He doesn’t like the teacher evaluation process and believes trying to prepare every student for college is “just widening the dropout pipeline.” Sally Harris, who also has run previously, operates a private school. She favors more vocational training for students, which she says would not preclude college as an option.
Michelle Popp Shimberg has a long history of being involved with Hillsborough schools, including serving for 19 years on the School Board’s Citizen Advisory Committee.
She recognizes the district is making progress in such key areas as enrollment in advanced placement classes and test scores but believes there also are areas that require far more attention.
A particular concern is ensuring all children are equally served and improving the academic achievement of minority students.
She believes it is important the board listen to students, teachers and employees — and not just at meetings. She wants to do school work days, where she would serve meals in the cafeteria and such, so she could better understand what workers face.
Thoughtful and independent-minded, we believe Shimberg would bring the board the kind of objective perspective it could use. For Hillsborough School Board, District 2, The Tampa Tribune recommends Michelle Shimberg.
Board member Stacy White, who is running for county commissioner, is leaving the seat representing east Hillsborough after one term.
Three candidates want to replace him. Terry Kemple is making his third try for the School Board. He is a conservative Christian who promises to be an advocate for local control and getting back to the basics.
Dee Prether is an Army veteran and substitute teacher. The mother of two has home-schooled her son, and understands the learning needs of children can be very different. She believes teachers need more freedom so they can better respond to those individual needs.
Melissa Snively runs an east Hillsborough insurance agency and is a former chair of the Brandon Chamber of Commerce. She says she always has had “faith in public schools.” And with four children, she is constantly involved.
Still, she is worried about teacher morale and believes the system’s teacher evaluation system should be revised.
Snively also understands the importance of schools to Hillsborough’s economic success. Without good schools and an educated workforce, the county won’t attract or retain top companies.
Snively believes the board needs members who will push for change while remaining positive.
She has demonstrated her civic commitment and leadership. For Hillsborough School Board District 4, The Tampa Tribune recommends Melissa Snively.
In this countywide district, seven candidates are challenging Griffin. Most of the candidates expected it would be an open seat because Griffin, who has served two terms, said she planned to run for the county commission. She changed her mind, in part because she believes a strong board is needed to hold Elia accountable.
Griffin works hard and has had her share of successes, including championing technical and career education.
But her feud with Elia is creating an atmosphere that even she acknowledges is toxic.
The situation is not all her fault. Elia can be unyielding. But Griffin clearly has lost perspective. She is reluctant to give Elia credit for anything and even seems to resent Elia writing articles for the newspaper, which keeps the public informed.
She says: “We need a change in leadership style or a change in leadership.”
Griffin may be correct, but the conflict has become so personal and bitter that it is difficult to trust her judgment on the matter.
Tampa native Lee Sierra is an engaging young man who works in the commercial real estate industry. He wants more emphasis on recruiting and training teachers.
Randy Toler, a founder of the Green Party, is an information technology professional who has lived in Hillsborough for nine-and-a-half years. The father of a profoundly autistic child, he would be a strong voice for students with disabilities.
A primary concern for Asher Edelson, a 19-year-old Hillsborough Community College student, is to ensure schools offer healthy meals.
Alison McGillivray Fernandez served on the Temple Terrace City Council for eight years and has been heavily involved with local schools. The former financial auditor definitely has the skills and background for the task and would ask tough questions. She wants more facts on whether magnet schools, which attract high-performing students, make things tougher on neighborhood kids and result in more busing.
Stacy Hahn, Ph.D., an assistant education professor at the University of South Florida, would bring impressive expertise and a thoughtful demeanor to the board. She faults the district for its exceptional student education failings, and says all staff should go through training for helping such students.
Attorney Dipa Shah is another appealing candidate. The mother of two sons in Hillsborough schools, she believes teachers should be treated as professionals.
She faults the district’s evaluation process, saying it adds to teachers’ stress. Thoughtful and analytical, she promises, if elected, to act on the facts, not “preconceived notions.”
Paula Meckley is a mother of three and longtime school volunteer who also is involved in historic preservation. She has a record of getting things done in a constructive way.
Meckley was one of the parents who fought a confusing elementary school math program that the district eventually dropped. She wrote grants that helped the historic Mitchell Elementary School get $350,000 in renovations funds. She similarly helped make possible the reflooring of Wilson Junior High by asking transportation officials to save the hardwood floors from an old school by the interstate that was being razed. She also has coordinated tutoring for low-income students.
Meckley appreciates Elia’s abilities but likely would not be steamrolled by the administration.
She believes board members and administrators need to be civil, regardless of their disagreements. “We should be setting the example,” she says, adding that rude comments should not be tolerated.
There are a number of worthy candidates in this field. But Meckley has shown she knows how to get results, both when helping and challenging the district. For Hillsborough County School Board District 6, The Tampa Tribune endorses Paula Meckley.