It's not a prerequisite to have a background in education to become a member of the Hillsborough County School Board. But one candidate running this year for the board thinks it wouldn't be a bad thing for the community to consider that as an important element of a candidate's background when considering who to vote for next month.
"I understand the challenges that teachers face in the classroom because two days a week I'm in the classroom throughout Hillsborough County working side by side with teachers and administrators. I don't think there's any candidate or even school board member who can say they've done that or do that," District 6 candidate Stacy Hahn told CL in a telephone interview late Friday afternoon.
On the current board, only Doretha Edgecomb has such an extensive experience as an educator. And outgoing board member Stacy White has served as a professor of pharmacy at the University of Florida.
Hahn is a professor in the Dept. of Special Education and coordinator of the Undergraduate Education Program at USF. She received her Ph.D. in Special Education with an emphasis on Early Childhood from the University of Florida. She began her teaching career as an elementary school teacher and taught in both general education and exceptional student education classrooms.
But while her educational credentials are sterling, she's found it hard to break through the expansive field of candidates running in District 6, where the trajectory of the race changed dramatically once April Griffin reentered it to maintain her seat for four more years. Griffin's initial announcement that she would not run for re-election led to a flood of candidates for what was the only countywide open seat on the ballot this fall.
Griffin has maintained a high profile during two terms on the board, with a considerable amount of success. But it's been her tempestuous relationship with Hillsborough County Superintendent MaryEllen Elia that has dominated the headlines in recent years, culminating earlier this year when she said that the superintendent was "full of shit." Hahn said that such an adversarial relationship has prevented Griffin from being effective, citing her opposition (along with Susan Valdes) to Elia's recommendation last month to purchase 100 Thomas Built buses (Griffin says the board should have considered another service and waited until July to make that decision).
"With every vote, you see a distinct divide on the board," says Hahn. "So what that tells me is she may not be necessarily voting for the best interests of the student. She's just going to vote against anything that the superintendent wants or these other board members want, regardless of what's in the best interests of the students, and when you get into that type of relationship," Hahn says, "you're not going to be able to move forward and help the district move forward, and that was her own doing through the relationships she's built through the board, and she's kind of proven she can't collaborate. She's not a team player, she can't build consensus."
The Tampa Tribune's editorial board apparently concurs, writing on Saturday that "Griffin has clearly lost perspective" when it comes to her dealings with the superintendent. The Trib endorsed Paula Meckley in the District 6 contest.
When contacted by CL, Griffin took strong exception to Hahn's remarks. She said that Hahn has a selective memory about her time on the board, saying if she'd truly been paying attention to the board meetings and not just reading news clippings, she'd see that Griffin agrees with Elia "95 percent of the time." Griffin also says that she is consistently passing motions for greater transparency and efficiencies, "and I will always vote with a fellow board member in the best interests of students, employees and taxpayers of this community."
Cl asked Hahn if she might concede that Elia's tenure is worthy of some of the criticism that's come her way over the years, and not just from Griffin.
Hahn says she doesn't know Elia personally and can't really judge what type of relationship she would have with her. She credits her with weathering the recession without laying off or furloughing any teachers. And she says it's commendable that Hillsborough is one of the few counties in the state that still provide professional training and development for teachers.
But Hahn says communications and transparency have broken down when there's been a crisis in the district. As someone currently teaching a course in communications and collaborations, she says, "I understand the pieces that need to be in place for people to be able to collaborate well together."
The deaths of two special needs students in Hillsborough Schools in 2011-2012 rocked the district and was a "big trigger" for Hahn in her decision to run for the school board. She began attending board meetings regularly after the incidents. "I think it's time that we have some leadership on the school board that has education experience, that's qualified to make these types of decisions, who's qualified to ask the right questions."
Those deaths were also a factor in another District 6 candidate entering the race, Randy Toler, who has a 6-year-old autistic child. "I want to be a voice for the 26,000 special needs students in the County," he told CL last week." I don't see that on the board now. I don't see that coming from the candidates in the race. I want to be that person among the many issues."