Hillsborough School Board has a debate: Who best represents Hispanics?

Hillsborough School Board has a debate: Who best represents Hispanics?

The Hillsborough County School Board narrowed its choice of voting maps Friday after arguing about whether the board’s new Moroccan-born chairperson is qualified to be an advocate for Hispanic students.

The exchange happened after board member Stacy Hahn — who faces a reelection struggle if the board adopts a proposed new map — pushed for her own map, saying it will give Hispanic voters the best shot at their own seat on the seven-member board.

The proposed new map was submitted by member Karen Perez, who is running for reelection with strong financial backing from prominent Democrats and the party itself. Perez’s map would remove from Hahn’s district communities around Sun City Center with large numbers of Republican voters. Hahn, a Republican, would therefore be vulnerable if she were challenged by a Democrat, as her district also includes largely blue South Tampa.

Hahn’s map keeps her district largely intact and expands the northwest Hillsborough district now represented by board chairperson Nadia Combs. Hahn — quoting several public speakers with whom she spoke at length after the meeting — said her map is the best for Hispanic voters because it would give the Hispanic population 46.6 percent of the votes in Combs’ district, which includes Town ‘N Country and parts of West Tampa.

Hahn said that, under this scenario, Hispanic voters would be all but guaranteed a seat on the School Board, much in the way a similar seat was created recently in Palm Beach County.

“To wait another decade to provide them a seat on this board is really discrimination,” Hahn said. “We have all eloquently advocated for Hispanic students and families on this board. And this is the time to put action to our words. Otherwise, we look incredibly hypocritical.”

Perez pointed out that she is a true Hispanic, fluent in Spanish and with a record of advocating for immigrants and minorities. Hahn said that is true, but Perez won her countywide seat “by chance,” and without the advantage of a specially designed district.

Hillsborough School Board has a debate: Who best represents Hispanics?

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Then Combs spoke up. She had her own reason to oppose Hahn’s map: It takes Combs’ Odessa home out of her district. If she wanted to run again in 2024, she would have to move or choose another district.

“I am not Hispanic,” Combs said. “But I was born overseas and immigrated to the United States when I was 8 years old. I did not speak English. We all lived in a house with one bathroom. I am the first person in my family to graduate from college. I might not be Hispanic, but I experienced the same challenges.”

Hahn disagreed. “I think it’s very shortsighted to compare one minority’s experiences to another minority’s experiences and say that you understand,” she said. “With all due respect, that is shortsighted and that’s me being kind.”

The argument about who gets to speak for Hispanics marked a new development in the redistricting matter. Previously, critics said the decision to draw maps came too late in the year, without enough public input. Unlike the County Commission, which must go through this process, redistricting is only recommended for the School Board.

Board member Melissa Snively, who attended Friday’s meeting remotely, cast the one dissenting vote against bringing three maps back for another vote on Dec. 16.

“It is obvious that the community does not feel like they have been engaged in the process based on the comments that we’ve heard and based on the feedback that we’ve received,” Snively said. Attendance was sparse at five community meetings, she said. “The process feels rushed. The process is flawed.”