Hillsborough School Board candidates are cautious as they launch campaigns

·3 min read

Candidates for the Hillsborough County School Board fielded questions Friday about critical race theory, budget deficits, ethnic mascots and other hot-button issues as they kicked off their campaigns.

The Tiger Bay Club forum, happening minutes after the qualifying deadline, revealed a somewhat cautious group.

There was no full-throated criticism of ethnic school mascots. With the board about to vote on ending its use of the Chamberlain High School “Chiefs,” nearly all six said decisions about mascots should be left to individual school communities.

Candidates Damaris Allen and Hunter Gambrell, while agreeing that the decisions should be local, also said Native American organizations who oppose the mascots raise interesting arguments.

Allen said such a conversation would be difficult to have with her son at Florida State University, home of the Seminoles. But, Allen said, “if we are going to be leaders, sometimes we need to have really difficult conversations and be willing to be made uncomfortable.”

Karen Perez, the only incumbent in the group, declined to answer the question about mascots because it will come up for a board vote on Tuesday. Other sitting board members were in the audience, Perez said, and she did not want to violate the state public meetings law.

Perez gave a similar reason for declining to say if she is for or against extending the employment contract of superintendent Addison Davis. The other panelists at The Cuban Club event either agreed that Davis should get a longer contract or said they would need more information before answering.

However, after a question about building conditions, Perez found an opportunity to tell the group she frequently urges district leaders to improve the appearance of high-poverty schools.

Incumbents Stacy Hahn in District 2 and challenger Patti Rendon in District 4 did not attend.

Despite their acceptance of current leadership, some speakers hit hard on the district’s academic record.

Roshaun Gendrett, who is challenging Perez in countywide District 6, noted in his introductory remarks that only 23 percent of third-graders earned passing scores on their state English/language arts exam this year.

“About 10,000 students cannot read,” he said. “Ten thousand students cannot read. Seventy-seven percent. And nobody seems to care about it.”

Alysha “Aly” Legge, who is endorsed by conservative organizations including the Moms for Liberty, said the state did families a disservice by keeping schools closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. And, while education officials insist that critical race theory is not taught in grades K-12, Legge asserted that it is.

Candidates were asked to explain why they were qualified to oversee the district’s $3 billion budget.

Allen said she is from the nonprofit sector, so “I’m used to working with nothing.” But she said she is not afraid to ask questions and enlist experts.

Danielle Smalley, a charter school administrator who entered the District 4 race this week, acknowledged that she also is not experienced with multibillion-dollar budgets.

But, she said, “I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to know that one plus one is two. And if it doesn’t add up, it just doesn’t add up. And if it doesn’t make sense, it just doesn’t make sense.”