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Tuesday, Nov 20, 2018
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Door-to-door: Parents emerge as a weapon in the campaign for a Hillsborough school tax.

TAMPA — It’s a sticky Sunday, high 80s, just uncomfortable enough to get people thinking about kids and schools and air conditioning.

Three women have armed themselves in a Palma Ceia kitchen with palm cards and talking points for a foray into political action.

Like others around Hillsborough County, they are tired of dilapidated conditions in their children’s schools. Hope exists in a half-cent sales tax for air conditioners, roofs and other capital needs.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: How Hillsborough’s school air conditioning crisis got so bad

With a shoestring budget, the organization backing the Nov. 6 referendum — Strengthen Our Schools — cannot afford companies that pay people to knock on doors. Instead, SOS is relying on more than a dozen parent groups like this one.

But, in a time and space where many voters are disgusted with politics, can they make an impact?

"I have never put a yard sign on my lawn," says Kristina O’Kelley, who works in real estate and has a first grader at Roland Park K-8 School.

"I always vote. But I have never been as passionate as I am about this."

• • •

Five will walk today up and down W San Rafael Street: O’Kelley, pharmacist Jamie Watkins, psychologist Alina Font, and daughters Anderson O’Kelley and Elizabeth Watkins, both 6.

They’ve chosen O’Kelley’s block because people they know are less likely to slam the door as they practice their pitch.

Barbara Landry greets them warmly from her corner house, charmed when the girls pull cards out of a rainbow-striped bag.

"I’ve been looking online to see what all those amendments mean, because some of them are confusing," Landry says.

The women tell her the schools item is last on the ballot. They tell her where she can vote early. They discuss her cataract surgery. As for those amendments, they recommend a League of Women Voters guide.

• • •

O’Kelley, Font and Watkins are part of a loose network of parents who mobilized after the Feb. 14 murders at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They watched as the Legislature considered arming teachers, then ordered schools to provide security, but allocated only 47 cents per student to pay for other major education expenses.

Then their own kids returned in August to hot schools. Parents sweated through the BooHoo Breakfast at Roland Park. "It was an awakening," says Font, who has a son in the fourth grade.

The Roland Park problem was short-lived. But it pained O’Kelley to drive by majestic Plant High School and see tubes in the windows, a temporary fix for that school’s air conditioning problems.

"I want the best for this community," she says. "We enjoy living in this neighborhood, and realizing the property values that we do for a reason, and it’s for our public schools."

As they canvass the block, O’Kelley does most of the talking, and the other moms do not object. She tells her neighbors the tax can be used only for infrastructure, that each school knows what it will buy, and there is a blue-chip oversight committee.

At a few stops, no one answers the door. They leave cards tucked in door jambs.

Homeowner Conchita Root compliments the children for being "such good citizens." She says she will "absolutely" support the tax.

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The owner of a tan cottage asks, "what are we selling?" and then wonders if he should sign a petition. Just vote, the group says.

After small talk about the neighbor’s cat, they cross the street to Bill Stuart’s house. A transplant from New York, Stuart has a daughter who is a teacher.

"We want this, not just for our students, but for our hardworking teachers," Font assures him.

Not all visits are successful.

Some neighbors say they already voted.

Gretchen Whalen tells them, "I’m still not entirely sure. I’m a tax accountant. So I think about the business impact as well."

They debate the broader question of what the local economy will be like if Hillsborough’s schools cannot keep pace with those in Orange County, Manatee County and all the others where voters already have approved similar measures.

Watkins later wishes she had told Whalen the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce backed the tax. So how could it be bad for business?

They realize some in the community think the School Board is a joke. Not everyone trusts the administration either.

But the consensus among the door-knockers is that schools matter more than any of that.

This is a conservative step, they point out — just a half cent, and only for 10 years.

"I think for me, personally, I felt better when I knew there was a plan, school-by-school, and there was an oversight committee," O’Kelley says.

"These are good people — people who have business acumen, but also care about kids and are invested in the community."

• • •

After a little more than an hour, the group begins to splinter. The children are hot. They want popsicles.

A gathering is planned later, where other groups like theirs will consider next steps beyond their own neighborhoods.

Watkins does not make that meeting. But, the next morning she says without hesitation:

"Yes. I would go out and do it again."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlene sokol

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