TAMPA — Most candidates running for Hillsborough County School Board support student-led prayer in schools and are against anyone who isn’t a law enforcement officer carrying a gun at school.
When it comes to what they think of the performance of schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, there’s a little more variation — some know exactly where they fall, while others have mixed feelings.
Members of the Tiger Bay Club of Tampa spent their lunch hour Friday using these issues and more to grill 10 of 14 candidates running for three spots on the seven-member school board. Questions also were posed about school vouchers and the school district’s recent purchase of 100 new school buses.
District 2 candidate Michelle Shimberg, a parent, and District 4 candidate Melissa Snively, an insurance agent, said they believe Elia is doing a good job.
“I’ve had only positive experiences with the superintendent,” Snivelysaid. “If you’re wanting an answer at this time, I approve.”
Among those who want a change in leadership are District 6 incumbent April Griffin and two of her opponents, 19-year-old Hillsborough Community College student Asher Edelson and Randy Toler, the parent of a special-needs child.
District 2 candidates Michael Weston, a former teacher, and Sally Harris, who runs a private school, also disapprove of Elia’s performance.
Griffin, who gave Elia a poor evaluation for the 2012-13 school year, describes the superintendent’s leadership style as “unyielding.”
“Her lack of regard for the public that I serve that she is supposed to answer to through me and six other board members is unacceptable,” Griffin said. “She is one of the hardest-working women I’ve ever met, but I believe we need a new type of leadership in this district now.”
Three others who are vying for Griffin’s countywide District 6 seat — attorney Dipa Shah, parent Paula Meckley and Temple Terrace City Councilwoman Alison Gillivray Fernandez — said they didn’t want to pass judgment before working with Elia.
“There have been some programs that have been fantastic, one being the magnet program,” Shah said. “My kids benefit from that. I would love to see more communication, more transparency and openness. I don’t think I have the full information available to answer honestly and accurately.”
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In the three races, Griffin is the only incumbent seeking re-election. Longtime District 2 board member Candy Olson, who represents southwest Hillsborough County, is finishing up her last term. District 4 member Stacy White, who represents much of eastern Hillsborough, is running for Hillsborough County Commission.
The candidates were also asked whether they support the expansion of Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program, which was included in a bill signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott on Friday. The program provides vouchers for low-income students to put toward tuition at private schools.
Some said they support the program, but believe the participating private schools should be held accountable in the same way public schools are, with their students taking the same standardized tests public school students must take.
“I think there needs to be very strict accountability,” Fernandez said.
She said she supports the use of school vouchers for students who have tried a public-school setting, but just can’t make it work for them.
Others flat-out oppose the program.
“I believe public money should be put toward public institutions,” Edelson said. Griffin is also against vouchers.
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Local attorney Ed Turanchik asked the candidates whether they would “accept secret processes” and be a “rubber stamp” if elected, referring to the board’s recent 5-2 decision to spend $11 million on 100 new Thomas Built school buses.
Turanchik represents Florida Transportation Systems, a local dealer for Blue Bird school buses, which claims it could have offered a cheaper proposal for comparable buses. He said the process the district used to choose a vendor wasn’t transparent.
Griffin and board Vice Chairwoman Susan Valdes voted against purchasing the Thomas Built Buses, saying the board should take a little time to consider the Blue Bird proposal since new buses likely will not arrive in the district until early 2015.
Every candidate rejected the notion he or she would be a rubber stamp for the school administration and promised to work for greater transparency on the board.
“I feel it’s important to ask diligent questions,” Snively said. “It is our responsibility to you.”
Not present were District 4 candidates Dee Prether and Terry Kemple, and District 6 candidates Stacy Hahn and Lee Sierra.