When Mitch Thrower and Jessica Vaughn decided to run for the Hillsborough County School Board, things were a little bit different than they are now.
In fact, the job they are both vying for — the District 3 seat that includes all of New Tampa’s public schools — suddenly looks a lot harder than it once did.
In the past six months, Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on the school system, and the school’s budget situation has gone from bad to worse to downright terrible.
“I completely agree it’s become a tougher job,” says Thrower, the former chairman of the Hillsborough County Planning Commission (he resigned in June). “There are some very tough decisions that are going to need to be made.”
Vaughn, a Tampa Palms resident and substitute teacher who was elected to the Tampa Palms Community Development District (CDD) Board in 2016, doesn’t disagree. In fact, when it comes to discussing the biggest issues facing schools in the upcoming months, they both agree the budget and keeping schools safe — primarily from Covid-19 — are easily the top two issues of the campaign.
Thrower, a Carrollwood resident, was the top finisher among six candidates in the August primary, capturing 25% of the vote, while Vaughn was second with 24.5%. The difference between the two was a mere 296 votes out of 42,950 votes cast.
Now that just these two candidates remain, both feel voters will be able to draw a clearer distinction between them. The early voting period is October 19 through November 1, with Election Day scheduled for Tuesday, November 3.
When it comes to fixing the $32-million shortfall in the District’s budget — much of it due to the continued loss of students due to home schooling and charter schools — a lot of belt-tightening, including potential layoffs and program cuts, is in the future for the county.
Vaughn, who has a Bachelor of Science in Education degree from the University of South Florida, says the School District needs to stem the loss of students, and an evaluation to find out why more students are choosing charter schools — and how public schools can retain those students — is vital.
“Why aren’t they choosing our public schools? That is the question that needs to be answered,” she says. “We need to fix that.”
Vaughn, who has been endorsed by the Tampa Bay Times, also says the county needs to look for alternative sources of revenue, and make sure the money it does have is being spent wisely on items like administrative salaries and contracts with vendors.
Thrower, who started his professional career auditing school boards at the State of Florida Auditor General’s office, thinks it is time for tough questions for those controlling the District’s purse strings.
“I think my business experience is needed at this time,” he says. “I can go in there as an auditor and I know what questions to ask. When it to comes to experience, honestly, there’s no comparison.”
Thrower is a Certified Public Accountant and certified internal auditor, and he holds a Bachelor of Science in Management degree from Tulane University and a Master of Business Administration degree from Florida State University.
When it to comes to school safety, both candidates are in favor of mandating masks in schools to deal with the spread of Covid-19, say teacher safety is a priority and approve of the other safety precautions being taken by the District.
Both candidates said the School Board’s handling of the return to school in August, arguably one of the most important discussions it has had to make in recent memory, could have been smoother. Thrower says he will bring more communication to the position, which he thought was lacking during the controversial re-opening discussions. He also felt the School Board wasn’t “proactive and creative enough.”
Meanwhile, Vaughn said she was extremely frustrated watching the School Board meetings, particularly the lack of planning. She said she was advocating in March and April for a plan in case the pandemic stretched into the fall, including the creation of e-Learning centers to accommodate parents who needed to return to work and didn’t have childcare.
“Nothing would have been perfect,” she says. “You can’t mitigate a pandemic perfectly. But, I would like the School Board to be more realistic and proactive about our challenges and less reactive. It undermines public confidence in the Board.”
Both candidates, who have children in public schools, say charter schools have a place in education. Thrower says charter schools provide options, “but they should be held accountable just like public schools.”
Vaughn says she is fine with not-for-profit charter schools, except when they hire for-profit management companies.
“At the end of the day, all parents really want the same thing,” Vaughn says. “They want a safe environment that’s close by, that is free, that nurtures and respects their students and offers them a good education. And, I want to see that happen in our public schools.”
Overall, Thrower had raised $58,500 but only had $6,500 cash on hand at our press time, while Vaughn had brought in $45,127, but still had nearly $28,000 cash on hand.
Vaughn has criticized Thrower for taking more than $12,000 from developers while he was chairman of the Hillsborough Planning Commission, which examines and weighs in on development projects for the county commission.
Thrower resigned from that position in June, to avoid any charges of impropriety.
Thrower says he is running a non-partisan campaign built on his experience and not as an activist. Since the primary, Vaughn has outraised Thrower $18,940 to $4,725, thanks to $12,000 in donations from the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee.