How will the Hillsborough School Board vote on reopening?

The seven-member board can stand its ground or give in to state leaders. Friday is their deadline.

Tampa Bay Times | by Marlene Sokol | August 12, 2020

Faced with a hard stance by state officials who want them to reopen school campuses this month, the Hillsborough County School Board is likely to hold another special meeting soon.

Will they uphold their 5-2 vote last week to start the school year on Aug. 24, with all students learning virtually for four weeks? Or will they bend to the wishes of Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran, who met Wednesday in Tallahassee with school superintendent Addison Davis? Corcoran wants an answer by Friday.

Some board members have Tuesday’s primary election to think about. Here’s what we know about their positions so far, and where they stand politically, as thousands of local families wait for an outcome:

Steve Cona III is running for re-election in District 1, which covers the northwestern part of the county. He has not discussed the reopening situation recently with the Tampa Bay Times and speaks in very measured terms publicly. He has stated that he thinks students are best served with in-person instruction. He voted on July 23 to support superintendent Addison Davis’s reopening plan, which offered students that choice. But on Aug. 6, after hearing from medical experts about the danger of coronavirus spread, Cona was part of the 5-2 majority voting to postpone in-person instruction for four weeks.

Steve Cona [Courtesy of the Cona campaign]

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Stacy Hahn has a record similar to Cona’s. Hahn represents South Tampa and southern Hillsborough’s District 2. She supported the reopening plan on July 23 but voted with the majority to wait on Aug. 6. Hahn said she was persuaded by the medical testimony, which made it clear that there would be too much disruption with schools opening and closing as outbreaks occurred. Hahn did not speak Wednesday with the Times.

Stacy Hahn [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]

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Cindy Stuart represents District 3 in North HillsboroughBut, after two terms on the board, she is running for Clerk of Court. It is an open primary against fellow Democrat Kevin Beckner. Stuart, who early on wanted schools to remain closed until after Labor Day, voted in favor of Davis’s plan on July 23 and against the four-week delay on Aug. 6. She said this week that she feels duty-bound to serve all constituents, those who want to keep their children home and those whose children need to be in school. That position has angered leaders of the teachers’ union, which threw its support to Beckner. On Wednesday, Stuart told the Times: “My position is, we need to adhere to the executive order (issued by Corcoran) and we need to provide equity for all kids, especially our most vulnerable.”

Cindy Stuart [MARLENE SOKOL | Times (2018)]

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Melissa Snively, the board chairwoman, represents District 4, home to East Hillsborough’s more conservative voters. Snively is not running for reelection and has not returned the last several phone calls from the Times. She has argued consistently to reopen schools, citing the needs of working parents and children who cannot learn successfully through a computer. Like Stuart, she voted yes on Davis’ plan on July 23 and no on the four-week delay on Aug. 6.

School Board chairwoman Melissa Snively claps after the board voted to hire Addison Davis as superintendent in January. [Times (2020)]

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Tamara Shamburger represents District 5, which serves the largest number of low-income and minority communities. A former COVID-19 patient, Shamburger has spoken out about the need to protect those communities hardest hit by the virus. And she has challenged Corcoran on his assertion that reopening is the best way to cure achievement gaps, saying he is using the equity issue as a “Trojan Horse.” Her votes so far: No to the reopening plan on July 23, yes to the four-week postponement on Aug. 6. On Facebook, Shamburger posted,“Word of the day: BANANAS!” to introduce a Times article that said Hillsborough could lose $23 million if it delays school openings for a month. “So we either hurt staff and students by sending them into an unsafe environment or the State hurts them by withholding funding?!” Earlier in the week, she posted, “by no means have we backed down.”

Tammy Shamburger, center, speaks at a community meeting about Ridgewood Cemetery last year. [Times (2019)]

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Karen Perez, elected at-large, has argued consistently to keep schools closed until the virus is under control. She voted against the reopening plan on July 23 and for the postponement on Aug. 6. She said Wednesday that if the vote is retaken, “I’ll still be in the same place.” Perez is not running for re-election.

Karen Perez talks with reporters during an event at Roland Park K-8 School in Tampa. [Times (2019)]

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Lynn Gray, also elected districtwide, has taken the position that school should open all-virtually — although she did cast a vote on July 23 in favor of Davis’ plan because she believed it was necessary to meet the state deadline. But she supported the posteponement on Aug. 6. Gray faces three challengers in her reelection bid, including a well-funded former School Board member, Sally Harris. Earlier this week, Gray told the Times that she will continue to vote to open the schools virtually, “even if it costs me the election,”

Lynn Gray [ Courtesy of the Lynn Gray campaign ]

Feature photo: From left, registered nurse Amy Gatlin and her son, Blake Gatlin, a student at Blake High School, protested outside Hillsborough County school district headquarters last week as the School Board decided how to reopen schools during the pandemic. The Blakes yelled, “Don’t treat our kids like guinea pigs.” [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

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