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Wednesday, Oct 22, 2014
Education

Hillsborough school board campaigning hits historic high

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TAMPA — With just over a month until the primary election, two political newcomers running for seats on the Hillsborough County School Board have raked in nearly $100,000 in donations each — the most raised in any local school board election, according to records available from the elections supervisor.

The war chests pale by comparison with the $100 million that Gov. Rick Scott is expected to have available in his bid for re-election this fall, but it’s a third higher than the previous record of $65,744. And there’s at least three weeks left to collect more.

The Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office only keeps financial records dating to 2000; state law only requires keeping them for 10 years.

The boost in contributions reflects the rising debate over increasingly complicated issues in local education — performance standards, charter schools, and vouchers to spend public money on private education, said University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith.

A bigger campaign budget helps candidates get their message out to voters on this array of topics, especially in a county as large as Hillsborough, Smith said. Florida’s fourth most-populous county, Hillsborough has the nation’s eighth-largest school district with 202,000 students.

“We’re seeing more and more money pile into these campaigns that often were very sleepy,” Smith said. “It speaks volumes of how important some of these school board contests have become. It raises some eyebrows in terms of how much money is being raised.”

School board members serve four-year terms and receive a salary of $41,000.

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The candidates play down the importance of money in their campaigns.

District 2 hopeful Michelle Shimberg, a 51-year-old mother of three, has brought in $96,904 in monetary and in-kind donations, the most raised out of the 14 candidates so far, according to her most recent finance reports filed July 4.

“Fundraising is a part of the local process in order to be able to communicate the message to voters,” Shimberg said. “But it’s just a part of it. I think another important part is getting out there and talking to voters, meeting people, attending events, walking neighborhoods. I’ve been spending a good amount of my time in that way.”

Close behind is District 6 candidate Dipa Shah, a Brandon attorney and one of six trying to unseat incumbent April Griffin. Shah has raised $94,942 so far.

“I’ve worked very hard for 15 months,” said Shah, 43. “People are saying I’ve raised too much money. I don’t let that impact me. People see how committed and passionate I am. That’s why the money is being raised, not for any other purpose.”

So far, Shimberg has spent $20,660 and Shah has spent $22,177. Much of the money they raise pays for consulting services, website development and advertising fees, as well as signs and other campaigning materials.

Winners of the three school board races up for election could be decided in the Aug. 26 primary if the leading candidate gets 50 percent of the vote plus one vote. If not, the top two vote-getters in each race face off in the general election Nov. 4.

Trailing Shimberg and Shah is District 4 fundraising frontrunner Melissa Snively, an insurance agent who has $66,980 in her coffers. The other 11 candidates have raised between $2,500 and $65,400.

Shah has been criticized by some voters and other candidates for the amount of money she has raised. But she says it is more of a priority for school board candidates in this election because many are running for office for the first time and need to drum up name recognition.

Plus, she said, costs for things like advertising have gone up.

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Many of Shah’s 320-plus individual contributions include some from members of the local Indian community. Donations include $402 from developer Santosh Govindaraju and $1,000 from Paresh Patel, chairman for Tampa’s Indo-U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as $50 from Pawan Rattan, a Tampa doctor who helped found the city’s first Hindu temple and chamber.

“From early on, we knew we’d have to do a little more to raise money,” said Shah, a second-generation Indian-American. “You get your first support from your peer connections. Those were our connections. Those were the people who stepped up.”

Shah also has the endorsements of the Tampa Fire Fighters, the local International Association of Fire Fighters labor union, as well as from former County Commissioner Chris Hart.

Shah and her husband, pulmonologist Suketu Shah, live in Valrico with their two sons.

Shimberg, with more than 430 donations, has the name recognition in her bid for a South Tampa area seat being vacated by Candy Olson. Shimberg married into a family whose name, associated with business and philanthropy, is inscribed on the downtown Tampa playhouse and the library on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. Shimberg’s donations include $250 from Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, $150 from Tampa City Councilman Harry Cohen, $100 from Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist and $500 from Attorney General Pam Bondi. Her husband is Tampa lawyer Robert Shimberg, who served on Bondi’s transition team.

She also has the endorsements of Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee and the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, the local teachers union.

When she launched her campaign, Shimberg started by reaching out to people she had worked with, in part as a member of the school district’s Citizens Advisory Council for nearly two decades.

“I don’t think the typical voter necessarily pays attention to the fundraising dollars,” she said. “They pay attention to the candidates’ message and who we are. I’m just really grateful for all the support I’ve received.”

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Shimberg said more people might be donating to school board campaigns this election cycle because of a renewed focus on the importance of public schools.

“I’m hopeful that it indicates there’s a strong interest in our community,” Shimberg said. “We need strong leaders to be able to lead an organization our size. They understand the importance of the role of a school board member.”

If elected, Shimberg’s priorities will be focusing on improving transparency, student achievement and community outreach.

Also vying for the District 2 seat are private school operator Sally Harris and former math teacher Michael Weston, who have raised $10,455 and $4,858, respectively.

In District 4, Snively faces conservative activist Terry Kemple, with $27,639 raised, and U.S. Army veteran Dee Prether, with $6,251. Stacy White is leaving the District 4 seat to run for the county commission.

In the countywide District 6 race, the candidates include Parent Paula Meckley with $65,419 raised, University of South Florida professor Stacy Hahn with $36,319, parent Randy Toler with $8,584, Temple Terrace City Councilwoman Alison McGillivray Fernandez with $7,937, Lee Sierra with $3,540, and college student Asher Edelson with $2,551.

Griffin has brought in $3,000 so far. She raised nearly $20,000 in the District 7 Hillsborough County Commission race before she dropped that bid to seek a third term on the school board. She has given that money back to her contributors, she said.

Griffin rejects the notion that raising the most money is required to secure a seat on the board.

“I think ideas win elections,” she said. “I think records win elections.”

ekourkounis@tampatribune.com

(813)259-7999

Twitter: @ErinKTBO

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