Failure to Lead: A Critique

Leadership: something that the School Board of Hillsborough County has been lacking lately.

Whether it’s the boardroom or classroom, leadership is a constant necessity. Leaders have numerous attributes, many of which are listed in the acrostic above. In addition to those, leaders must listen, be humble and authentic. Great leaders put aside their personal interests in order to benefit the masses. They put the needs of others before their own so that morale remains high and employees can be positive and productive. Above all, leaders must be collaborative and competent in order for the entire organization to succeed.

While this is only a partial definition of leadership, it gives us a good baseline for comparison. Are our elected leaders for the school district living up to these attributes? Have they been consistent exemplars of the servant leadership model that they espouse? The last few weeks of turmoil among the Hillsborough County School Board members have left many public education stakeholders confused and concerned, and many people with whom I have spoken during that time–from high level administrators downtown to my colleagues in the classrooms–have been flummoxed by their behavior.

Approximately three weeks ago, the school board members–with the exception of Lynn Gray–all but abandoned their oath of office: they pledged to defend the Florida Constitution, but without seeking any public input or comment decided they would not join the lawsuit against HB7069, which is unconstitutional on numerous counts. They claim it was the cost, yet that did not stop them from spending far more on the relocation of Human Resources, their individual offices, the Gibson report, et cetera.

Then came the board meeting on October 3rd, during which Susan Valdes uttered one falsehood after another in her ten minute diatribe that revealed she is either completely ignorant or incompetent, stating how she didn’t know if teachers of different ethnic backgrounds are paid the same; continually confused equity with equality; admitted to not knowing how A+ funding was distributed (all of which is public record and one would assume a board member would know after 13 years), and tried to drive the wedge between teachers and support personnel even deeper. This has been ongoing for months, and included other ridiculous comments such as teachers receiving $30,000 raises or not knowing that the FEFP was an average. Why do the other board members not rebuke her for these lies? Certainly they know them for what they are. Letting them pass for fact because it is being stated by a public official is downright shameful.

And then there was the public spat between April Griffin and Tamara Shamburger this week (at a training intended to foster collaboration and respect no less). Great leaders should always be great listeners; they must value the opinions of others, even when they disagree. It is the only way to build trust and move an organization forward. But having a dispute in a public forum that included expletives and resulted in being chided by a board member from Pinellas county who felt ashamed for Superintendent Eakins demonstrated how badly this situation unfolded.

All the while, 26,000 employees shake their heads, hold their collective breath, and wonder what will come next. Please do not embarrass us like this any longer. We are proud to serve over 200,000 children each and every school day. But it’s hard to take pride in where you work when so-called leaders behave like insolent children. We believe you can do better, but if you can’t, then please step aside so that others may provide the good leadership we need. Our children and their future is at stake, both of which are far more important than any given board member’s political career.


  1. This is nothing new. The school board was just as incompetent 10 years ago, but the difference was Mary Ellen Elia schmoozed and bullied them all into submission so they rubber stamped anything she needed. The financial mess was always there, just hidden. Jennifer Faliero and April Griffin and Carol Kurdell all acted just the same in the past. High level staff then was experienced and mature but now youth and energy is prized (I remember it being a big deal when the “youngest” principal, at 42, was hired). With youth and energy comes, well, inexperience. Things are certainly a mess in HCPS.


  2. Bravo! It’s about time someone said this aloud. I started teaching in Hillsborough County over 35 years ago and have never seen the board as mismanaged as it is with this board.


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