April Griffin offers no apologies, runs for 3rd term on the Hillsborough County School Board

click to enlarge April Griffin offers no apologies - CHIP WEINER
Chip Weiner
April Griffin offers no apologies

Compared to some of her opponents, April Griffin hasn't raised a whole lot of money in her race for re-election to the District 6 Hillsborough County School Board seat that she's held for the past 7.5 years. And she failed to receive the endorsement from the two major newspapers in town. 

Yet she's still considered one of the favorites in the crowded field to advance to the November election after this month's primary — if not outright win it — and it's not just because of her name recognition.

It's because a lot of people like her confrontational style, and believe that everything is not going smoothly in the school district, the eighth largest in the U.S.

"I make no apologies for what I've done as a school board member," Griffin told CL on Monday afternoon while speaking in our Ybor City offices. "I said from the beginning that I was going to question the administration. It's in my campaign materials. I've said it in my stump speeches. I have said that I'm going to be there to ask the tough questions. If people don't like it, then I don't know what to say, because that's my role. That's what the people elected me to do."

A major crisis occurred this year in the district's transportation department, ultimately leading to John Franklin, the department's general manager, stepping down this spring after seven years on the job. Earlier the board approved hiring consultant Tom Platt to review that department, but Griffin and others became alienated after Superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools MaryEllen Elia said they should not speak with him during the middle of his investigation. 

Concurrently Griffin met with officials in the transportation department who "were sharing all types of concerns about the way that employees were being treated," but said the game-changer that led to her re-entry into the race was learning of an incident during those conversations that echoed the tragic death of Isabella Herrera, the 7-year-old special needs student who died on her school bus in January of 2012. That's when she told those officials to document their charges in a memo. 

"Things that I was told were done were not done to ensure our kids' safety, to ensure that our employees were treated with respect, respect that they deserved ... I'm running for the people of this district, and I really believe we're at a time right now where I don't think we need on-the-job training right now."

That's Griffin's way of saying that despite the various credentials that her seven challengers bring to the District 6 race, she needs to be re-elected to the board to keep up her work. And the fact that with the departures of Candy Olson and Stacy White from the board this year, there will already be a paucity of experience with two new board members coming onlne.

Griffin originally announced over a year ago that she wasn't going to run for re-election, but instead run for the Democratic nomination for the District 7 County Commission seat. After dropping out of that contest, however, she still hadn't decided to run for re-election, until events at the district called on her to run again, she says.

Most of the District 6 candidates entered the race believing it was an open seat with no incumbent having an advantage. Griffin says several of her opponents are "very well qualified," but insists she's not running against any of them. "I'm running for the people of the district."

As part of her mission to bring more transparency to the board, Griffin takes pride in saying that former longtime School Board Attorney Thom Gonzalez no longer works with the District "because of me." She says that's a good thing, because for the first time in 30 years, the board was able to hire an attorney who is responsible to the board, not to the superintendent and the board. "There was always a clear conflict of interest there," she says.

One of the big questions asked of all School Board candidates this summer has been their take on the Common Core standards now being implemented in Florida public schools (called Florida Standards here in the Sunshine State). She's been fairly neutral in her reaction when asked at forums, but now she outright declares that "I don't believe it's going to be good for our kids," though she says there's no single reason for her disdain. 

Surprisingly for someone who is hoping for four more years on the board, Griffin says term limits would be good for school board members, which is not the case today. First elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2010, she says she thinks three or four terms should be the maximum amount of time for members to serve. "I believe in fresh blood coming in." Currently, Carol Kurdell has served on the board for 22 years, and Candy Olson for 20 (though Olson is not running for re-election this year).

Regarding Elia, Griffin says people who think part of her motivation to stay on the board is to get rid of the Superintendent need to think again, calling Elia's contract "ironclad" — something no one board member could overturn.  Not that she doesn't want to change how that contract is structured, mind you, calling it extremely one-sided. She says Elia has many strengths, but also deficits, but "the fact that she's not willing to admit her deficits is one of her greatest weaknesses. We all have room to grow and improve."

When asked about her own deficits, Griffin says it's that she's not a natural politician; her entry back into the race was somewhat awkward. "I was not going to run, and I had my closest advisors tell me 'be coy, don't tell people, keep it close to the vest.' But I'm honest, and I think sometimes in politics, people don't understand. They don't get that. I'm forthright. Say what you mean, out there. That's not typical politics."

The primary election for District 6 takes place on August 26.

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