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Event Details

Conflicts, challenges & culture wars in Florida's classrooms

Florida's public schools are facing daunting hurdles with funding shortfalls, teacher shortages, state mandates, culture wars, declining math scores and growing competition from private school vouchers and charter schools. Can the system withstand these stresses? Is a bright future possible?

Join the Tampa Bay Times for a community discussion on the future of education in the Sunshine State. Two panels including thought leaders, students and Times journalists will explore how Florida's public schools are doing and where they are headed.

When: Tuesday, January 30, 2024

5:00 pm - Registration & mingle

6:00 pm - Welcome & Panel Discussion

7:00 pm - Student Panel

7:30 pm - Q & A

Tickets: $20 / $10 students with ID

All proceeds from this event will benefit Tampa Bay Times Journalism Fund.


Dr. Monica Verra-Tirado has been a public educator for over 30 years. She served in Hillsborough County Public Schools as Chief of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion from July 2020 until her retirement in July 2023. She worked closely in this position with the superintendent and others to ensure that all students graduate ready for college, career and life. This work required the entire system to be designed with a focus of equity and diversity – from personnel recruitment and retention to high-quality instructional practices and strong partnerships with families and community partners. From 2012 to 2020, Dr. Verra-Tirado worked for the Florida Department of Education as Chief of the Bureau of Exceptional Education and Student Services. Before that, she gained extensive experience at the classroom, school and district levels in Pasco County Public Schools. After official retirement from Hillsborough schools, she is excited to have returned to her home school district in Pasco. There, she works as a program coordinator on assignment, supporting special projects for Exceptional Student Education and Student Services.

Dr. Goliath John Davis, III, the first-born child to Beatrice George Davis and Goliath John Davis, II, has ridden his "first status" at birth to become the first in social and professional endeavors. But if asked, he quickly credits the sacrifices our ancestors made to pave the way for all that followed. He insists he stands on the shoulders of the Courageous Twelve in law enforcement, Mary McLeod Bethune, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver in education and Barbara Jordan in government. In addition to his mother and grandparents, he credits his first grade teacher, Helena Jenkins, third grade teacher Miriam Griffin, sixth grade teacher Johnny Welch, seventh grade teacher Eva Jean Welch, college professors Elinor Miller, Patricia Lancaster, Coramae Mann and Major Professor Gordon Waldo for their contributions to his success. Don McRae and Hank Ashwood, Sr. were instrumental in his success as a law enforcement and municipal government official. Dr. Davis was the first African American deputy chief, assistant chief, chief of police and deputy mayor in the city of St. Petersburg. He served as an adjunct professor and senior advisor to the chancellor at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, until his retirement. He has been a vocal advocate for education in Pinellas County and has worked with the group Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students, which is charged with monitoring the education of Black students in the county. Dr. Davis was a member of the mediation team that led to the school district's Bridging the Gap plan, an initiative to improve educational outcomes for Black children.

Andrew Spar is president of the Florida Education Association (FEA), the state’s largest association of professional employees. Andrew was born and raised in the suburbs of New York City, attending public schools. A violinist since age 6, he earned his bachelor’s degree in music education from Ohio State University, graduating in 1994. That same year, he came to Daytona Beach to teach at Turie T. Small Elementary School, where more than 90 percent of the students lived in poverty. The music teacher soon found his voice as an advocate and has worked ever since on behalf of public school students, schools, teachers and education staff professionals. “I could not read when I was in first grade,” Andrew recalls. “I struggled in school. But the educators in my life were empowered to make my success a priority, and that’s just what they did. I want the same world for my family and for all of Florida’s children.” At Turie T. Small, Andrew served as school-improvement chair for two years and as a union steward for seven years. He would go on to become president of his local union in May 2003 and led Volusia United Educators until he was elected FEA vice president in 2018. In September 2020, he was named FEA president after the previous president, Fedrick Ingram, was elected secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). During his 15 years leading the Volusia union, Andrew negotiated 14 contracts, handled numerous grievances and arbitrations, and spent many long hours advocating for members and working families. In 2017, he led the merger of the Volusia Teachers Organization and the Volusia Educational Support Association to create Volusia United Educators, which represents teachers, paraprofessionals and office specialists in Volusia County Schools. Throughout his career, Andrew has served on committees and task forces for the AFT. At FEA, he spent eight years on the executive cabinet. Andrew also has served on the executive board of the Florida AFL-CIO and was secretary-treasurer of the organization from January 2016 until September 2020. Andrew is married to Vernell Spar, who is also a public school music teacher. The Spars have two daughters, one a graduate of Florida’s public schools and the other a current student.

Erika Donalds is the chief executive officer of Optima Ed, an education experience company dedicated to expanding high-quality school choice. A mother of three boys and former finance executive with a passion for education, she has offered her expertise in business to help further the expansion of parental choice and to improve accountability and governance in Florida’s public schools. Prior to launching Optima, Erika was chief financial officer/chief compliance officer and partner at DGHM​, an investment management firm. She served with the company for almost 20 years and was responsible for the finance, compliance, and operations, in addition to serving on the firm’s management committee. Erika holds a bachelor of science degree in accounting from Florida State University and a masters in accountancy from Florida Atlantic University. She is a certified public accountant (CPA) and a chartered global management accountant (CGMA). Erika is a former elected member of the Collier County School Board. During her tenure, she co-founded the Florida Coalition of School Board Members and served as the group’s president. She was appointed to Florida’s 2017-2018 Constitution Revision Commission by then-Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran, and recently served on Gov. DeSantis’ Advisory Committee on Education and Workforce Development. Erika now serves on the Heritage Foundation Advisory Council on Education Reform, and on advisory boards for Classical Learning Test, Moms for Liberty, and the Independent Women’s Forum Education Freedom Center.

About Spotlight Tampa Bay Community Conversation Series:

Spotlight Tampa Bay is designed to foster meaningful dialogue and engage our community on issues that impact the way we live, work and play in Tampa Bay. Each community conversation will feature a panel of industry leaders, representing varying viewpoints on the topic at hand, alongside reporters and editors at the Tampa Bay Times. Attendees can expect a dynamic and interactive discussion, with ample opportunity to participate in a Q&A session.

About Tampa Theatre:

Built in 1926, Tampa Theatre is a passionately protected landmark and one of America’s best-preserved movie palaces. The majestic building is owned by the City of Tampa and operated as a dynamic film and cultural center by the not-for-profit Tampa Theatre Foundation. Tampa Theatre is a proud member of the League of Historic American Theatres and the Art House Convergence. www.tampatheatre.org

Venue Information

Tampa Theatre
711 North Franklin Street
Tampa, FL 33602

Organizer Information

Tampa Bay Times Journalism Fund

490 First Ave South
St. Petersburg, FL 33701

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