Factions emerge, again, on the Hillsborough County School Board

Marlene Sokol, Tampa Bay Times
·5 min read

Two members of the Hillsborough County School Board have arranged to meet next week to discuss the district’s massive financial challenges.

But a third member suggested they may have violated the state’s public meetings law in the process.

“How could they possibly coordinate this without breaking the Sunshine law?” board member Melissa Snively asked in a text to the Tampa Bay Times. “Like, how did they coordinate this PRIOR to communicating it? Why wouldn’t they just publicly ask for a workshop or discuss at a board meeting? This seems very covert.”

The two, Jessica Vaughn and Nadia Combs, are new to the board and both are Democrats, with Vaughn known for being politically progressive. Snively, the board’s longest serving member and its prior chairwoman, is a Republican who represents the most politically conservative district in the county, in East Hillsborough

School board seats are nonpartisan. But the board has a long history of conflict, although usually the issues are not partisan.

Most recently, Vaughn and Combs cast two dissenting votes against a proposal to put the school district’s downtown Tampa headquarters up for possible sale to raise money. Vaughn said she wanted more information. And Combs said the district can likely get more for the property if it waits a few years.

In an email to the rest of the board, Vaughn and Combs said they also want to discuss other items in the news, including the possibility that the district will close and consolidate under-enrolled schools. The meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday in a second floor conference room at 901 E Kennedy Blvd.

Jim Porter, the School Board’s attorney, said Vaughn contacted him, saying she wanted to schedule a member-to-member meeting. When asked if Vaughn named Combs as the other member who wanted this meeting, Porter said he did not feel comfortable answering.

While school board members are allowed to have private conversations, “they can’t talk about anything that they could conceivably take a vote on,” Porter said. When asked if that included the need for a member-to-member meeting, Porter said if that was all that was said, it would not constitute a violation. But he did not feel comfortable answering a hypothetical question about a conversation he did not hear.

His instructions to Vaughn were to notify a secretary in the superintendent’s office and communications chief Tanya Arja. The meeting would have to be properly noticed, with the public invited and minutes taken.

Combs and Vaughn said they have had numerous conversations with staff, board members and school boards outside Hillsborough about what they consider insufficient time to discuss meaty issues, including chronic cash flow problems that could result in a state takeover.

The board meets less frequently than it used to, lately once a month. Board comments are limited to two minutes at a time on agenda items. At the end, when board members can introduce topics, they are also limited in time and encouraged to end the meeting on a positive note.

In some of their conversations, the two said, they mentioned the possibility of a member-to-member meeting. They both found it ironic that they would be accused of a possible open meetings violation when they were searching for a way to converse without breaking the law.

“We won by landslides,” Vaughn said. “For us to not have a space where we can work together and discuss the multiple crises is unacceptable.”

To Snively’s remark, Vaughn said, “that’s just typical Republican gaslighting,” to which Snively responded, “that’s just a rude statement.”

Member-to-member meetings are not unheard of, said Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. They sometimes happen when two members need time to work out their differences, as was the case in Manatee County between Dave Miner and Scott Hopes, who clashed so fiercely that one accused the other of criminal assault.

Conflicts on the Hillsborough board are more benign, but not by much. A group of four on a prior board allowed themselves to be nicknamed the “mean girls,” and were photographed in shirts with the initials, “MG-4.” At one point, Snively and current chairwoman Lynn Gray found their Facebook communications lifted from computers in the meeting room and shared with a community newspaper. That incident led to a criminal investigation as well.

Gray said Thursday that she considers the current situation a setback at a time when the district and board will need unquestioning support from the community.

“I want to accomplish unity,” she said. “I want to accomplish consensus as a group. When we have a faction, which seems to be occurring, that divides the board. The goal is to strengthen our district in a time of fragile fiscal weakness. We as board members, we have to stick together and we have to stick with the superintendent.”

To Vaughn’s complaints, she said members can ask questions to staff ahead of the meetings, as they receive the agenda items in advance. Superintendent Addison Davis is scheduling more one-on-one meetings with the new members. And a board retreat is planned March 3.

The invitation to participate in Thursday’s session went to the seven board members, but not district staff. Vaughn said she did not want any board member to feel excluded. But, she said, the idea is to give members an opportunity to converse, and not allow staff to dominate or eat up time with presentations.

She predicted superintendent Addison Davis will show up.

But, through an email from district spokeswoman Tanya Arja, Davis said he will not attend because of other commitments. Snively said she will not be there either.