TAMPA, Fla. — A Hillsborough County School board member texted to other board members how she planned to vote during the contentious meeting to close Just Elementary School in West Tampa earlier this month, 10 Investigates has confirmed through public records requests.
Experts from the First Amendment Foundation believe it could be a violation of the state's Sunshine Law when it comes to providing public access to governmental proceedings — and there are now questions about whether it will nullify the board's vote at the May 9 school board meeting. That’s where board members voted 4-3 to close Just Elementary. It was a controversial vote as the community was fighting to keep it open.
Board member Lynn Gray was the swing vote during the first meeting in April, expressing earlier she wanted to support the community's wishes to keep it open but later sided with Superintendent Addison Davis' request to close it.
After filing a public records request for all text messages sent to and from board members that night, 10 Investigates received this message Gray sent to the entire board at 7:13 p.m. telling them all how she planned to vote. The text reads "I am done....my vote is yes."
This was sent at the same time as the school board was discussing whether to close the school. The vote did not happen until about 7:40 p.m.
Hillsborough County NAACP President Yvette Lewis has been vocal about community frustration with the school board over its decision to close the majority-minority school in a rapidly-redeveloping area.
"When the people spoke, the question is, 'Did you really listen?' When the people expressed their concerns and they poured out their hearts, did you even really care, school board member, Lynn Gray," Lewis said.
Mike Deeson, former investigative reporter at 10 Tampa Bay and current member of the Florida First Amendment Foundation Board of Trustees, said this is a clear violation of the Sunshine Law because board members are never to discuss public business in secret.
Edward Birk, general counsel for the Florida First Amendment Foundation, said the text also raises concern about whether the board's final vote to close the school should still stand.
"I think it is a violation," he said. "But the second question then is does it invalidate the vote, and does it need to be cured? Legally speaking to corroborate or validate the vote, or does it need to be cured for public trust?
"Those are going to be two different things. So, the question is what to do about it. That's, that's the bigger question, I believe."
10 Investigates reached out to board member Gray who said she had "no comment" and to contact the school board's attorney. 10 Investigates is awaiting a response.
However, a spokesperson with Hillsborough County Public Schools provided the following statement:
"At the first reading, Ms. Gray voted to support the recommended boundary changes for Just Elementary School. At the second reading, she seconded the motion, which indicated she was again supportive of the boundary changes for Just Elementary School. Further the comments she made during Board discussion indicated she was supporting the motion.
"Ms. Gray says she inadvertently sent a message to a group text that is used for announcements or scheduling purposes with Board Members. Ms. Gray says there was no attempt to sway any Board Member to change their vote. In fact, the votes remained exactly the same between the first and second readings."
Closing the school will mean displacing neighborhood students who will now have to attend two other schools farther away.
"To bus them out and say that they'll get a better education at a different building is not the same thing as educating them where they live," James Ransom, chair of the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs, said.
The school board vote is also controversial in large part because of Just Elementary's proximity to the Hillsborough River where there have been talks of redeveloping the land to welcome new residential and recreational space.
Superintendent Addison Davis said there is no plan to sell the Just Elementary school property.
"Originally there was conversations about potentially selling Just," he said. "It's been very clear on a March 9 workshop that the board does not have aspirations to sell any of our facilities in any of our properties. So that is gone, that is off the table."
Earlier this month, 10 Investigates revealed how a 2015 plan from the Tampa Housing Authority and the City of Tampa had renderings that showed changes to the area around Just Elementary. The West River Master Plan calls for the Tampa Housing Authority, the City of Tampa, Hillsborough County and Hillsborough County Public Schools to work together to reconfigure 120 acres of government-owned property along the waterfront.
Future buildout shows Just Elementary and Stewart Magnet Middle School gone and a K-8 school in its place.
Davis said his request to close Just Elementary had nothing to do with the West River Master Plan.
"I can't speak to what has happened previously to my administration coming in," he told 10 Investigates' Emerald Morrow at the May 9 board meeting. "We've been here a bit over three years and, you know, whatever master plan was presented in 2015, that doesn't include me as the superintendent or any of the current board members."