Primary 2020: Voters To Choose Hillsborough School Board Members

·13 min read

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, FL — With four Hillsborough County School Board seats up for election, voters will choose among 18 candidates to make decisions regarding the education and safety of public school children.

The winners of all four school board seats will be decided during the Aug. 18 primary.

Patch emailed candidate questionnaires to all school board candidates. However, not all candidates responded. Here is the information provided by those who did respond.

District 1

Running for the District 1 seat are Nadia Combs, incumbent Steve Cona, Ben Greene and Bill Person.

Steve Cona

"I am honored to serve as vice chair of the Hillsborough County School Board. I was elected to the Hillsborough County School Board, representing District 1, in 2018. I am one of seven members responsible for making policy decisions and overseeing a total budget of $3.3 billion for the seventh largest school district in the nation, which is also the county’s largest employer with more than 24,000 employees.

"I serve as the president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors Florida Gulf Coast Chapter. I was Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s appointee to the Hillsborough Community College District Board of Trustees and serve on the advisory board for Visit Tampa Bay. I have a passion for ensuring that our students are career and college ready.

"I am a Hillsborough County native and product of Hillsborough County Public Schools. I received my bachelor’s degree from the University of South Florida. My wife Audra and I have two children, Steve and Giana, who both attend Hillsborough County Public Schools.

"As your school board member, I was instrumental in delivering an International Baccalaureate Program to Alonso High School, increased dual language programs and approved tens of millions to improve district schools. My goals for my next term are to create the first district-run school for students with autism, increase and improve technology in the classroom and expand career and technical education into our middle schools."

District 3

Running for the District 3 seat are Alexandra Gilmore, Leo Haggerty, Jennifer Hill, Mitch Thrower, Jessica Vaughn and Rick Warrener.

Alexandra Gilmore

"I am running because I am the most qualified person for this seat in District 3. No other candidate has had actual recent hands-on experience in the public schools. I am experienced on the current curriculum, the budget allocations, safety and transportation issues, racial disparities, lack of equity and transparency concerns of the district.

"I am running to make a positive change so that kids, teachers,and parents can have their voices heard and without retaliation. I want teachers, parents and the district to bridge the gap so that kids can be academically successful. I am running because it is time for a real candidate who truly understands the public school system and has gone above and beyond in the community for all kids.

"I received my bachelor of arts degree in public communication from the University of South Florida and a master's of science in dducation from Nova Southeastern University.

"For the last four years, I have filled long-term vacancies as a substitute teacher in Hillsborough County Schools K-12. The classes I taught included geometry, college readiness, Spanish, U.S. history, chemistry, reading and a combination of elementary classes at Greco Middle, Mort Elementary, Wharton High School, King High School and Sulphur Springs K-8. My experience as a long-term substitute at various schools has allowed me to see the lack of funding, racial disparities, curriculum, lack of technology and lack of transparency.

"I am also the founder of a parent advocate group called Parents Advocating for Children and Educational Changes. The purpose and focus of the group is to help educate parents on the public educational school system and to bridge the gap between parents and teachers so the children can be academically successful.

"Lastly, I am also a fitness instructor and mother of two boys who have been in the public school system from kindergarten to current.

"I am a real person who is very passionate about kids' academic success. I was a stay-at-home mom for my oldest sons the first couple of years. As a stay-at-home mom, I was heavily involved in my son’s school as a PTA board member, tutor and a Sunday school teacher. I stayed active with my children’s learning and other kids' learning because I saw the importance of academic success. This is what inspired me to be a substitute teacher. I saw how the system was setting up children of color to be labeled and held back. I went into the schools to learn more on how much the public schools have changed for my own two boys.

"Once I went in, I learned much more than I expected. I found out the system was beyond broken and other children like mine were being affected. I learned that I needed to do more. I became a mother to not just two boys but to hundreds of kids. I was the mom and counselor to so many kids in the district. I decided I just couldn’t abandon them because they became my kids. The pay was little as a substitute teacher with no benefits but what kept me going every day was the kids telling me "thank you for caring." I would buy food and treat my kids in the classroom. I went above and beyond to help them academically with no tools or technology. I wanted them to be successful. As I watched so much, it was time for me to run for school board, it was time for me to make a difference. So here I am running for school board to make a difference for not just my kids but all kids.

"Kids are my first and foremost priority. They are minors and, as adults, it is our responsibility to help them grow, achieve, learn and be great. If we as adults do not make that our first and foremost priority, we have all failed. Academic success, infrastructure, the budget, teachers' pay, allowing teachers to have a seat at the table, taking away all those assessments and test, etc., are some of my top priorities when it comes to running for school board."

Leo Haggerty

Leo Haggerty has bachelor of arts degree in social studies from Northland College in Wisconsin, was a teacher and coach at Maple Shade High School in New Jersey, the University of Wisconsin, Newberry College in South Carolina, Brittons Neck High School in South Carolina, Hemingway High School in South Carolina, Leto, Gaither, Tampa Bay Tech and Wharton high schools in Hillsborough County.

He's spent 45 years in education as a teacher and coach, the last 33 with the Hillsborough County School District. He's also been a credentialed member of the sports media community since 1999 and served as vice president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

On primary election day, he will celebrate 41 years of marriage with his wife, Barbara, a Hillsborough County elementary school teacher before retiring in 2017. They have four children: Charlene, 44, Kelly, 36, Kate, 31 and Shaun, 39. They also have four grandchildren: Brady, 12, Caleb, 4, Sydney, deceased, and Haleigh, 6.

"My big three priorities are (1) immediate improvement to the unsafe traffic patterns at the Steinbrenner/McKittrick/Martinez entrance and interior roadsways, (2) creation of a fair, equitable and enforceable discipline policy that all stakeholders will be involved in creating for overall acceptance and (3) lobbying legislators in Tallahassee to increase the PPE funding allocation to the national midpoint."

Mitch Thrower

Mitch Thrower is the senior manager of administration for the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, where he has managed the Risk Management Department's insurance and safety program with more than $2 billion in property values.

He also has experience maintaining accountability and fiscal responsibility with complex budgets, including performing school board audits while at the State of Florida's Office of the Auditor General.

"There is no substitute for experience, especially to oversee a school district that has been through a disorganized budget with a $50 million deficit and no accountability. As a CPA and certified internal auditor, I am the only candidate who has a strong financial background and school board auditing experience to get the district's budget back on track.

"I also have the ability and experience of keeping professionals in line with budgetary expenses and maintaining fiscal accountability – which is what the Hillsborough County School Board desperately needs."

While most past and present school board members are teachers, Thrower grew up in a teaching household and understands the importance of education. His mother, Sandra Thrower, was an educator in Hillsborough County for more than 30 years, retiring as principal from Forrest Hills Elementary School.

"It is crucial for the school board to have a financial watchdog with accredited accounting and auditing skills. The recent news, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times, of a $50 million shortfall in the school district's reserves is very unfortunate, especially in the eyes of taxpayers. In fact, in 2018, a half-penny tax was passed by Hillsborough County voters to secure $1 billion in funds for the school board over a 10-year timeframe, which was intended to fund school repairs and maintenance, such as failing air conditioners. The $50 million deficit was taxpayer dollars that have been mismanaged and could have funded critical expenses at schools.

According to Thrower's former colleague and CPA Stephen Zarycki, "Mitch is knowledgeable and experienced with financial internal controls, budgets, and accounting and procurement processes. His background and experience are critical to ensure the necessary resources are obtained for schools."

Community leader and Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce trustee, Gary Pike, stated, "I served on the Hillsborough Planning Commission Board for five years with Mitch Thrower, four of which included serving on the executive committee while Mitch was chairman. Listening, fairness, preparedness and decision-making are important leadership qualities consistently displayed by Mitch. With actual board experience, an understanding and respect of the residents of Hillsborough, combined with his depth of knowledge, Mitch is a needed addition to the Hillsborough County School Board."

"Every great board has members with different skills and experiences. It is important to have a mixture of educators as well as individuals with business and financial expertise overseeing the school district and the budget. I am confident that my background as an auditor and manager will help the board work with the new superintendent to create synergies and efficiencies within the school system," Thrower said.

District 5

Running for the District 5 seat are Elvis Piggott, incumbent Tammy Shamburger, Selena Ward and Henry "Shake" Washington.

District 7

Running for the District 7 seat are incumbent Lynn Gray, Sally A. Harris, Jeffrey Alex James Johnson and Angela Schroden.

Sally A. Harris

Sally A. Harris was previously elected to the school board in 2014. She graduated from Robinson High School and received degrees from the University of Florida, University of South Florida and Hillsborough Community College.

She has served as a branch manager for the Gainesville Camps Federal Credit Union, as an occupational specialist at Riverdale High School in Lee County, Monroe Middle School and Tampa Bay Tech and was the owner and occupational specialist at the Circle C Ranch Academy preschool and summer camp in South Tampa.

A widow, she is the mother of four children and 30-plus foster children. She's served as past president of the South Tampa Chamber of Commerce, the Coleman Middle School PTA, the Madison Middle School PTA, the County Council PTA, the International Federation of Business Women Professionals, ACME Marriage Enrichment and the Florida Vocational Association. She's also served on the Early Learning Coalition, the Children's Board, Zoo Tampa, Leadership Hillsborough 1989 and Beta Sigma Phi.

Her priorities include bullying versus coping skills, introducing vocational education to middle schools, lower-cost health benefits for employees and safety for both students and teachers.

"I have unfinished business. I want to see our district look at lowering cost benefits for all employees. I want to help move alternative choices from college for students who don’t plan to go to college to have skills and training opportunities to be graduates entering the work force with a trade.

"I feel we have issues in our schools with bullying. We need to teach our children coping skills, not just remove the bully but provide skills that help children cope with challenges that they will encounter in their life journey. This needs to be done as early as second grade.

"Our middle schools need to be totally revamped. Parents are not happy with the district middle school program so we need to look at other ways to enhance middle school so our families feel better about our programs."

Jeffrey Alex James Johnson

Jeffery Alex James Johnson has a bachelor's degree from Warner University, a master's in theology from St. Thomas Christian University, a master's in ministry from Warner University, a doctorate from St. Thomas Christian University and he's currently enrolled in the doctoral program at Anderson University.

Pastor of Connections Community Church in Lake Wales and Tampa, he is the father of three sons, all attending Hillsborough County Schools. He's also an adjunct instructor at Hillsborough Community college, on the school advisory council at Benjamin Franklin Middle School, is senior manager of the United Way Suncoast's Neighborhood Initiatives, is on the board of the Tampa Bay Community and Development Corp., is a graduate of the Tampa Leadership Institute, is founder of JAJJ Executive Leadership Coaching, and is the author of “Creating A Better Me” and “Who’s Eating Me?”

Honors include Volunteer of the Year for the United Way Tampa Bay, the 2010 Stellar Community Service Award from the U.S. Census Bureau, honorary chairman of the 2013 NAACP Freedom Fund, Duke Energy 2019 Community Partner of the Year, 2019 and 2020 GTE Financial Outstanding Community Partner and 2019 Community Advocate and Partner of the Year for the American Red Cross.

"The most pressing issues in our school district beyond COVID-19, we must first address the learning, achievement and discipline gaps with our minority scholars. The solution to this is to provide in-depth training for our educators on cultural differences and to host consistent forums with our community stakeholders.

"We should revisit our district code of conduct for minor offenses and consider what restorative practices. We would also require mediation and must choose the best-qualified educators to provide the remediation.

"Secondly, I would continue to monitor our graduation rates as well as dropout rates. To push the district to 90 percent and beyond graduation rate must include intentional measures that prevent a scholar from dropping out. We would provide access to technical colleges or host vocational/technical programs on our high school campuses.

"The third pressing issue is twofold. It is to address funding and early childhood literacy. If our goal is to produce even stronger graduation rates/decreased dropout rates through intentional outreach measures to children before they reach the kindergarten level, we must be strategic and work with Early Head Start and VPK programs to ensure literacy/phonics/comprehension models are being taught. Funding is key. Funding is needed to ensure we can support the programming and partnerships to these early learning and development centers.


This article originally appeared on the Tampa Patch

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