TAMPA — After two decades serving on the Hillsborough County School Board, Candy Olson says it’s time to pass the torch.
This fall, Olson will be replaced in her District 2 seat by a fresh face — either a private-school owner, a mom who is active in parent and community groups or a former teacher.
The winner of the nonpartisan District 2 race, which represents southwest Hillsborough County, could be determined in the Aug. 26 primary if one of the candidates secures 50 percent plus one vote. If not, the top two vote-getters in each race face off in the general election Nov. 4.
Board members are elected to four-year terms and earn nearly $41,000 annually.
The three candidates — preschool owner Sally Harris, parent Michelle Shimberg and former teacher Michael Weston — present different approaches to educational issues. Each believes he or she has what it takes to be one of seven who make decisions for the eighth-largest school district in the nation.
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Harris, 64, who ran unsuccessfully for a spot on the board in 2010, said she knows what she’s doing this time around.
“I’m a little more educated,” she said. “I was very naive going into it last time.”
Harris thinks the school board could use more cohesion and less arguing.
“The first thing I would want to do is really work hard to build continuity on the board,” she said. “I feel like we can all agree to disagree, but we need to get some extra outside help on how to do that without offending each other.”
Before opening the Circle C Ranch Academy preschool, Harris worked for 18 years for the school district as an occupational specialist and career counselor. She also served in the 1980s as an accreditor for the Florida Department of Education, where she learned how schools should be run.
She says her experience in those roles, as well as being a parent of five children and two foster daughters, would serve her well on the school board.
“I’m a mediator,” Harris said. “By trade, I’m a counselor. I handle conflict easily.”
At one point, she supported the Common Core State Standards, the new language arts and math educational model that Florida and most other states adopted. Florida has since tweaked its version of the standards and renamed them the Florida Standards. Now, Harris says she is against the standards, which were designed to teach students to think more critically.
“We need to rewrite the whole idea,” she said. “I don’t like the rigidness of it. I think they’re putting a lot on the teachers way too fast.”
According to the most recent financial records filed with the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office last month, Harris has raised $10,455 in monetary and in-kind donations, including one for $1,000 from prominent businessman and philanthropist John Sykes.
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If elected, Shimberg’s priorities will be focusing on improving transparency, student achievement and community outreach.
“Regardless of where you live or what your background is, I want to be sure that each and every student is achieving their highest possible educational goals,” Shimberg, 51, said. “I have experience working on local and national boards and understand how to make changes and how to affect changes from a board seat.”
The mother of three was a member of the school district’s Citizens Advisory Council for nearly two decades. She’s served on other boards for local school parent groups and foundations, and has been president of the national Delta Delta Delta sorority.
She supports Common Core, saying that raising the bar and being able to compare students in Hillsborough to others across the country is important.
Supporters include Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee and the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, the local teachers union. She has raised $96,904 in campaign contributions.
Shimberg said oversight of the school district’s budget of nearly $2.9 billion will be a priority for her.
“We need to look for duplications, look for cross-savings every way we can to make sure we are being good stewards of the taxpayer dollars,” she said.
She also would like to see stronger communication between the school board and the public.
“I think we can do a better job,” she said. “That means with parents, with the business community, the community at-large. Some of the issues that affect our students are societal. It’s going to take us all working together to support our students so they accomplish their highest level.”
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Weston, a 58-year-old former Freedom High School teacher, has been critical of Olson, as well as Superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
“Those board members who attempt to dig beyond the superficial are openly rebuked by the superintendent and her cadre of tamed board members,” Weston wrote in an email. “Secrecy, control and intimidation represent the management style practiced in Hillsborough schools.”
A fixture at school board meetings, Weston says his teaching experience makes him the best candidate for the job.
“My recent teaching experience gives me first-hand insight into the impact this district’s failed policies have on the classroom,” he said.
His teaching contract was not renewed for the 2013-14 school year. Weston filed a grievance with the district and an unfair labor practice complaint with the Public Employees Relations Commission.
Weston has raised $4,858 in campaign contributions, including donations from two former school board candidates who dropped out of the District 6 countywide race — $1,000 from philanthropist Charles Brink and $110 from teacher Russ Patterson.
Like Harris, Weston said he would work to offer more career and technical opportunities at schools. He wants to see the district make a “clear acknowledgment that not everyone goes to college.” He believes many students aren’t aware of their post-secondary options, and that guidance counselors tasked with advising them seem out of touch with opportunities out there for young people today.
Weston is not in favor of Common Core or high-stakes standardized testing. The new standards will be fully in place this fall, and with them comes a new test that will replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
“I consider a school board seat to be a fine bully pulpit to address what I see as Tallahassee’s shortcomings,” he said.