TAMPA — They didn't raise a lot of money — about $31,000 between them.
4 Weeks Ago
2 Months Ago
2 Months Ago
But Cathy James and Lynn Gray beat out six opponents, some much better funded, in the August primary for Hillsborough County School Board.
To go the distance in this countywide race, the winner will need to convince voters, during a fiercely contested presidential election, that she is uniquely qualified to see the schools through daunting challenges in the classroom and at the bank.
One is a veteran teacher, the other a career accountant.
And, as both will attest, the stakes for more than 200,000 school children are high.
• • •
People have told 57-year-old James for years that she should run for office. It started after she got together with Judy Meagley, who she met at work, and they decided to start a family.
Tyler, now 16, was Meagley's biological son. They gave him "James" as a middle name.
But the law did not recognize James as his parent.
"If Judy had died, anybody that was heterosexual in the world could have adopted him and I couldn't have," she said. "Judy is number seven of nine. So all of her straight siblings or her mother could have come and just snatched him up and I wouldn't have been able to do anything."
James networked with leaders in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. She met with legislators. She testified at hearings. In 2010, based on another case, it became legal in Florida for gay people to adopt.
Today James works as finance manager for the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative and lives with her family in Riverview. She's the most outgoing of the three, she said, and for a long time her wife and son's shyness discouraged her from seeking office.
Then longtime School Board member Carol Kurdell announced she was stepping down, months after district leaders revealed they had run through $200 million of their reserve funds.
"All of a sudden, poof, the reserves are gone," James said. "And I said, 'What do you mean, poof? What do you mean, nobody knew? If you're the accounting person, you go to a quiet corner of the parking garage and say, 'Look at the books.' "
She talked about running and talked about running.
Finally, Meagley says she told her, "Shut up or run. … And she doesn't know how to shut up. So there we go."
• • •
Lynn Gray, 64, is known for two things: Teaching and running.
Her teaching career has taken many turns. In the Hillsborough County system, it stretched from East Tampa to the Northdale suburbs. In 1990, she was a district teacher of the year while heading up the social studies department at what was then Middleton Junior High School.
She wanted to send her son Thomas, now 30, to parochial school. So she took a job at Jesuit High School. She was an adjunct teacher for Jesus, Mary and Joseph, a Catholic homeschool group.
She also ran more than 95 marathons and organized running clubs in schools and as community fundraisers. She took her passion for running farther with the creation of a coaching business called Take … The First Step.
The business showed a $2,000 loss on Gray's last tax return. "This campaign has washed out a lot of my time, for sure," she said. If she wins, she said she will keep the non-profit running club, but cut the business back even more.
In fact, financial disclosure forms show Gray borrowed $5,000 to finance her campaign.
Like James, Gray said she started feeling about a year ago that the school system needed better leadership. "I see the putting-out-fires business model happening all the time, where something is in their face and they go running to it," she said."
Not enough emphasis, she said, is placed on the most important aspects of public education: reading, and teaching children how to build relationships.
"I want to repeat the successes I had as a teacher," she said.
• • •
In addition to the 40 Hillsborough schools the state flagged for low reading scores, and ongoing cost-cutting to protect the reserves, other issues have commanded attention.
Critics of church-state partnerships have pointed to Superintendent Jeff Eakins' friendly relationship with Idlewild Baptist Church and evangelist groups.
Social conservatives lashed out when the board tried to amend its anti-harassment policies to protect gender expression. That move coincided with the creation of universal school restrooms, and ignited a debate on transgender rights.
Where do James and Gray stand on these issues?
James said she is very concerned about the faith-based partnerships. She told the School Board recently that she wants to know the identity of every volunteer who enters her son's school, Middleton High, and what organization he or she represents.
Gray also has concerns. Clearly, she said, some district employees need more legal training.
As for Eakins' relationship with Idlewild, Gray said, "I think it's a slippery slope and I would avoid it. I think he's asking for a lot of dissonance. There are too many other problems that we have in the school system and that's one that we could avoid."
When asked about LGBT issues, both answered carefully.
James realizes that, as someone who has a chance to be the first openly gay Hillsborough School Board member, she would be sought out for her perspective on gay issues.
"I would expect them to come to me for that, but I would expect them to come for me for other things also," she said, making it clear that she does not want to be a single-issue candidate. "There are so many other parts of me."
She has an adult sister who is disabled, and her father and uncle were instrumental in reforming special education laws in Tennessee, she said.
Then there is the budget, which made for the best possible talking point during the primary.
"People would ask, 'How many years have you been a teacher?' " she said. "And I'd say none. I've got 30-plus years of accounting and financial management, and it's a $3 billion budget and the largest employer in the county. And they'd go, 'Okay. That makes sense.' So it was a real easy sell."
Gray, in past remarks, has taken a position counter to the rush to let transgender students use restrooms of their choice.
"I believe those conversations should have been taken at least two years ago," she told the Tiger Bay Club.
"We have states — say, California, they tout their great success. However, our state is more conservative and, without having discussions and conversations with religious leaders, conversation with our local leaders, our parents and by the way what about the kids? I think it's very premature to put ourselves in that position. "
But, when asked if she sides with those who do not want schools to accept transgender rights, Gray said absolutely not.
"As long as it doesn't disrupt the learning process, I'm fine with it," she said. "As an educator, I want achievement and I want non-disruptive learning time."
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 810-5068 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.
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