HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — The composition of the Hillsborough County School Board may be very different after next month’s election. 

Three incumbents are facing reelection challenges, while a fourth member, Cindy Stuart, is leaving her District 3 seat after being elected in August to succeed Pat Frank as Clerk of the Circuit Court.

Educator Jessica Vaughn and CPA Mitch Thrower are running to succeed her. Both say they’re “passionate” about education when discussing their respective candidacies.

“My experience as an educator, my experience with my own child, who is an exceptional learner, my community organizing and my experience managing a budget on the CDD (Community Development District) that I’m elected to, all made me feel that this was a really good time and a good fit to run for the school board,” says the 43-year-old Vaughn.

“I have strong leadership skills. I’ve got financial experience. I’m a CPA. A Certified Internal Auditor. I’ve audited school boards. And I have broad community support,” says the 52-year-old Thrower, who also has served as the chairman of the Hillsborough County Charter Review Board and was the chairman of the Hillsborough County Planning Commission.

Thrower stepped down from the Planning Commission in June to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest over contributions to his campaign from members of the development industry. The commission makes recommendations to the county commission on real estate projects. Vaughn had made it a campaign issue, but Thrower told the Tampa Bay Times that he was acting out of “an abundance of caution,” and not in reaction to Vaughn.

More recently, Vaughn has criticized Thrower for accepting campaign contributions from Floridians for Liberty and Innovation, a Tallahassee-based political committee, because it in turn has received funding from the GEO Group, the for-profit corrections corporation. She says it’s hypocritical, since Thrower has spoken about dismantling the “school-to-prison pipeline,” the concept that school policing leads minors out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems for behavior that should be handled inside the schools.

Thrower dismisses the criticism.

“I think my opponent is just grasping at straws, to tell you the truth,” he says. “People who know me know who I am and know that they can trust me.”

Hillsborough County Superintendent Addison Davis said last month that because of declining enrollment, there are going to be budget cuts over the next year. Thrower says his financial background will be an asset during these challenging times.

“There’s going to be some tough decisions going forward, and I think with my financial experience, my leadership experience, my ability to collaborate and work with others, I’m the right candidate to get that done,” he says.

Vaughn disagrees. She says that while it’s important to know how a budget works, she adds that “if we’re not electing people who really understand the holistic connection between budgetary changes and education policy, we’re doing our students a disservice.”

When asked about school choice, Thrower says he supports allowing parents the rights to have options. 

Vaughn is more circumspect, saying she thinks that some alternative education options can be extremely helpful for students who are “neurodiverse or have experienced trauma.”

But she’s also concerned about too much emphasis on choice to the detriment of public schools.

“If we make sure that all of our public schools are the way that they should be - that they have equity within them, parents wouldn’t need choice,” she says. “I don’t want it to be that our school systems are so bad parents are struggling to choose what school. They should be able to go to their neighborhood school, and get the support that they need, and their students should be nurtured and respected and have access to a quality education.”

Thrower has the backing of Stuart in the race, while Vaughn has been “recommended” by the Tampa Bay Times editorial board.