Hillsborough school board rift is on display at training event
TEMPLE TERRACE - The school boards of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties were supposed to be learning how to become more effective through listening and respect. That was the goal, anyway, of the Florida School Boards Association's training event Wednesday at the University of Phoenix.
But just two hours into the day of kumbaya, Hillsborough board members Tamara Shamburger and April Griffin drowned out the room with an escalating argument.
Shamburger said Griffin discounts newer board members on the dais. Griffin said she has "completely withdrawn" from conflict on the board. Shamburger covered her face with her palm.
She then packed up her belongings and stormed out of the room. "I don't get pissed, and now you're gonna get me pissed."
"You supported my opponent Joe Robinson (in the 2016 election). And you treated me like s---," Shamburger said on her way out.
Pinellas board member Rene Flowers tried to calm Shamburger. Flowers followed Shamburger out of the room to console her.
"I treat her with the highest respect," Griffin told her board colleagues after denying that she mistreated Shamburger.
Wednesday's gathering, which hit high and low points throughout the day, illustrated tensions that persist on the seven-member board nearly three years after a narrow majority fired Hillsborough's last superintendent.
There were moments, later on, when Griffin and Shamburger made conciliatory gestures and statements. Shamburger said she's voted for Griffin in every election since 2006. Griffin said the two were very much alike.
But by that time, reports of their earlier blow-up had spread through social media.
And those were not the last harsh words of the day.
Shamburger, also the youngest member at 42, occupies a Central Tampa seat that was long held by Doretha Edgecomb, a veteran educator whose career dated to the years of segregation. Tradition called for Edgecomb to become the board chairwoman in late 2015. But the four-member majority gave that post to Griffin, stirring up resentment among some of Tampa's black community leaders.
Edgecomb chose to step down when her term expired in 2016. The hard-fought race to replace her pitted Shamburger against Robinson, an engineer and sometime contractor for the district.
Shamburger won by a wide margin.
Griffin, addressing her board after Shamburger left the room, said one issue troubling her is that Shamburger seems to hold her responsible for a lack of academic success among black male students.
"I'm tired of everyone holding me to a higher standard," she said, adding that she should be able to treat others the same way.
Shamburger and Flowers returned to Wednesday's session about 15 minutes after the argument, in time for a training on open-mindedness. They sat with their respective boards and worked on an activity that asked them to think of a person they don't like and jot down their redeeming qualities.
During a lunch break, Griffin said the argument was "something I would never say at the dais." She said she did not realize the press was in the room.
Griffin added that Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law, which requires that meetings attended by at least two board members are open to the public, makes it difficult for board members to work out personality differences.
"It makes for sometimes tense moments," she said.
Shamburger declined to comment.
Later in the day, with Shamburger again out of the room, Griffin offered to apologize.
Shamburger came back. She described sometimes feeling belittled by the others. "Squashed like a little bug," she said, although she acknowledged it isn't personal.
Then the subject turned to Susan Valdes and her strong personality.
Board chairwoman Cindy Stuart told Valdes, "I don't feel like I can come to you for fear of your anger. I don't approach you on certain things." She told her colleague, "We need to feel safe to approach you."
Valdes' response: "Well, shame on you."
Valdes defended what she called her passion, not anger. She said she considers it her role to push for inclusion, particularly when it comes to Hispanic students.
The program lasted until shortly before 4 p.m. By that time the Pinellas board members were on their way home.
Tina Pinkoson, one of the instructors, said she believed the Hillsborough board members had made some progress. At least with one or two of them.
Around the same time, Shamburger tweeted a photo of a natural water scene with the words: "Lack of emotion causes lack of progress and lack of motivation." The tweet added: "Lots of progress today!"
Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.