Hillsborough County School Board candidates talk Common Core, school vouchers & MaryEllen Elia in forum

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On Friday, Governor Rick Scott signed a controversial expansion of eligibility for the state's school voucher system, a move that was ripped by the state's biggest public education union. But most of the people running to join the Hillsborough County School Board this summer don't seem to have that big of an issue with it. 

That was the consensus among the 10 school board candidates who appeared Friday at the Tampa Tiger Bay Club forum at Maestro's in the Straz Center (there is a total of 14 on the ballot). Sure, they said in unison, it's unacceptable for such schools to escape the same level of accountability that their public school brethren are charged with, but philosophically, there appeared to be a lot of support for what such schools are trying to do.

"I do support the voucher system," said Temple Terrace City Councilwoman Alison Gillivray Fernandez, running in District 6. "It is not fair for only people with financial means to place their children in the most appropriate education setting," before acknowledging that needs to be "very strict accountability."

"I support the voucher program," agreed District 2 candidate Sally Harris. "The voucher school system just helps us do a better job having more school choices,"  adding that not every student learns in the same fashion so "we need different opportunities for different students."'

"I support parent choice," added District 6 candidate Randy Toler, who is perhaps best known for his previous work with the national Green Party. "There are 26,000 special needs students that are treated like second class citizens (in the district), we need to change that. This voucher program helps."

District 6 incumbent April Griffin said she has toured through a lot of voucher schools, and has become an unabashed fan of not-for-profit charter schools, but not if they're run by a for-profit company or corporation.

But Asher Edelson, a 19-year-old Hillsborough Community College student running in District 6, and Michael Weston, a former school teacher running in District 2, were unequivocal in denouncing every aspect of of the school voucher movement.

Griffin had the most gravitas amongst the candidates fielding questions from Tiger Bay audience members, which made sense considering she was the only candidate with actual school board experience addressing the crowd (and the only current school board member running for re-election) A casual observer might note that she is vulnerable considering she has seven opponents challenging her.

And while that might be the case, the fact is the majority of those running against her got in the race believing the seat was an open one, since Griffin had originally announced last year she would forgo running for re-election and train her ambitions on running for a County Commission seat. But she dropped out of that race and months ago said she would indeed run for her seat again, scrambling the field. A bit sheepishly she apologized for that head fake in her opening remarks on Friday.

"Circumstances changed, things came to light and I learned that I have some unfinished business," Griffin said. But she didn't apologize for her tough criticism of superintendent MaryEllen Elia. "I ask the tough questions," she acknowledged with pride. "Some people don't like the questions - makes me look confrontational, but...I believe there should be tension between the school board which is elected and their employee, the superintendent of the school."

Five of her seven opponents sat beside her on Friday. They include attorney Dipa Shah, longtime school volunteer Paula Meckley and the aforementioned McGillivray Fernandez, Edelson and Toler. Lee Sierra and USF professor Stacy Hahn are also on the ballot, but did not attend the forum.

When asked about Elia's leadership, most of the candidates hemmed and hawed, not wanting to go say anything controversial. Not Griffin.

"She doesn't move. She's unyielding, and for me to take the role of public servant, 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."

The candidates - again, save for Griffin - also were reluctant to say who they would vote for for governor, saying that was a private decision (she didn't commit who she was voting for, but said she couldn't support Governor Scott). That didn't sit well with Ed Turanchik, who shouted (while smiling) from his seat that the public deserved the right to know that. 

Obviously still upset that a company that the company he represented - Florida Transportation System - was recently denied the opportunity to win a recent contract on new school buses, Turanchik used his question during the Q&A to the candidates to bring the issue back up, asking of they would accept "secret processes" and be a "rubber stamp" if elected.

Talk about a leading question. Not surprisingly, none of the candidates bit, begging off the first question by saying they didn't know the particulars, and using the second question to almost grandstand about how they would do anything but be a rubber stamp.

District 4 candidate Melissa Snively, former chair of the Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce, said that in order for there to be trust between the school board and the public, "every decision, every conversation, every rationale needs to be open and public in order to maintain that trust."

Perhaps the hottest issue on the national level is the issue regarding the new Common Core standards adopted by Florida and virtually every other state in the union. Though elements from both the progressive left and conservative right have issues with Common Core, it's the conservatives who have been getting their message through, persuading governors in Louisiana, South Carolina and Oklahoma to abandon the new standards.

Several of the candidates were more nuanced in their responses, saying that they believe in higher accountability, but there is perhaps too much emphasis on testing.

"My answer is not yes, and it is not no, " said Paula Meckley. "I'm 100 percent for higher standards..We have got to raise our standards for our students....It’s how we implement it and what we do here in Hillsborough County to educate our teachers."

If one were to go simply by fundraising, Michelle Popp Shimberg has to be considered a serious contender in District 2, dominating the field by raising more than $92,000. No other challenger in that race has raised more than four figures. Snively has raised the most in District 4, and Meckley the most in District 6.

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