Strong words after Hillsborough School Board members air complaints at a breakaway meeting

Marlene Sokol, Tampa Bay Times
·4 min read

Days before a retreat that is intended to improve relations between the Hillsborough County School Board and the school district administration, Deputy Superintendent Michael Kemp and Board member Jessica Vaughn are emerging from a harsh exchange of weekend emails.

Kemp, in a lengthy email Friday evening, was seeking to clarify points that came up during a partial “member-to-member” board meeting that took place Thursday.

At that meeting, Vaughn and members Karen Perez and Nadia Combs discussed weighty issues that face the district, including a possible state takeover if cash reserves fall too low and ongoing talks about selling the district headquarters.

Kemp went through those and other issues, point by point, using the phrase “fact check” where he wanted to show there is widespread misunderstanding.

“No matter how much we attempt to communicate facts, there are always some in the community that either present an element of the truth or misrepresent it altogether,” he wrote to all seven school board members and Superintendent Addison Davis.

Vaughn, responding on Saturday morning, called Kemp’s email “out of context, accusatory, divisive, filled with misinformation and not an appropriate response to the concerns of certain board members.”

Later, after the two went back and forth with more emails, Vaughn wrote that Kemp’s original email “felt chastising, accusatory, inflammatory and honestly, sexist in nature.”

Davis entered the conversation only briefly, writing that “from a professional standpoint, Dr. Kemp is a highly regarded professional known throughout the Southeast and a leader who always treats everyone equally.”

Vaughn and Combs, both elected in November, have complained in recent weeks about not having enough time at meetings and workshops to collaborate on challenges the district is facing because of its budget problems. The district has not been able to maintain large enough reserves to satisfy the investment community and, barring staffing cutbacks and other changes, the fund will drop below a threshold established by state law.

Perez joined the two Thursday, through a remote link. Like the others, she said it was hard to keep the community informed about these issues.

Vaughn told the Tampa Bay Times this week that Kemp’s email disturbed her because he seemed to write around the issues they were raising. Referring to Vaughn’s desire to be notified when state education officials visit to discuss issues that might trigger a takeover, Kemp described the normal course of communication between the state and district.

“He trivialized our concerns, he gave incomplete explanations, and I don’t need someone ‘mansplaining,’” she said, referring to the part about the district and the state. “It was like a smack on the wrist because we had the meeting. I don’t think it would have been handled that way if three men were having a conversation.”

Combs said she was not crazy about Kemp’s email and did not think it wise to send it. She said, as she did Thursday, that the three board members meant no disrespect when they met; they simply wanted to discuss the issues.

But clearly, the administrators took offense. “They just took it so personal,” Combs said. “I think there was a misunderstanding on both sides.”

Kemp has been deputy superintendent since April. Like others at the top of the organization, he followed Superintendent Addison Davis from his last post in Clay County.

Caught in the middle is chairwoman Lynn Gray, a board member since 2016, who is trying to present a unified front as the district faces difficult decisions.

In her own email to Kemp, Gray provided a list of suggestions to combat misinformation. They include a more robust social media presence, a coalition of diverse community leaders to serve as “think partners” and notifying board members of any press interviews so they can prepare their responses to constituents and social media.

More immediately, Gray is preparing for Wednesday’s retreat in Plant City. She said she wants to allow board members to air their concerns. But she also wants to impress upon them the need for harmony.

“I’ve got reports from various school board organizations about what they call a disorganized school board,” she said. “They say the biggest problem is that communities lose faith in the workings of the school district when they see dysfunction. And the actual academic performance of students slows down because it affects the morale and well-being of everyone.”

Gray noted that in recent weeks she doubled the number of board workshops, increased speaking time allotted to members at the meetings and agreed to reconvene a board finance committee.

Gray, Combs, Vaughn and Perez said they all hope Wednesday’s session will be productive.

But, they cautioned, it cannot be a one-way street.

“We’re elected officials,” Perez said. “We have the responsibility to speak to what our constituents are asking us to speak to. Anybody who has an issue with that has an issue with what the community is saying.”

Vaughn said she wants to make it clear that she agrees with Gray on one key point: “It is absolutely essential that we unify.”

But, she added, “it is more important to have trust with the public as we make these incredibly difficult decisions going forward.”