Can April Griffin keep her seat on the Hillsborough County School Board?

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click to enlarge Dipa Shah & April Griffin at Maestro's Restaurant in Tampa. - Kimberly DeFalco
Kimberly DeFalco
Dipa Shah & April Griffin at Maestro's Restaurant in Tampa.

In Tampa/Hillsborough County politics, collegiality is highly valued. April Griffin would argue perhaps a bit too highly valued. That's because her at times unsparing criticism of Hillsborough County Superintendent MaryEllen Elia has offended some sensibilities. 

That public perception makes her vulnerable in her attempt to secure a third four-year term on the School Board. But at a debate at Maestro's restaurant inside the Straz Center in Tampa last Friday, Griffin displayed her vast knowledge of the the goings-on in the District, and why her supporters say she's exactly the kind of strong leader that is needed to hold leadership accountable.

"I am the only person sitting up here who has cast a vote against the superintendent," Griffin said asked during the Q&A portion of the debate with her challenger, Dipa Shah. Griffin said she would much rather work with Elia, but said somewhat cheekily that having applied "every single leadership theory" that she learned in college, she hasn't been able to influence her. So when asked if she would support her dismissal if a board member proposed that possibility, Griffin said she would do so.

"As a person who has not been privy to all of the information, it's hard for me to say how I would cast my vote," replied Shah, who edged out six other candidates in the crowded District 6 primary in August to get into the one-on-match with Griffin. "I will say that the school board has collectively yo-yo'd on its evaluation, so there's a lot more to this story than we're seeing," she said, turning to Griffin and questioning how she could give Elia high marks one year and extremely low grades the next.

"Children died, so yes, my evaluation went down," Griffin replied acidly, referring to the two special needs children who died on school property in 2012, leading to a shakeup in the district's transportation division.

The sharp exchanges continued when Shah said that she'd like to see the superintendent evaluated more often during the year. Griffin said that Elia's contract dictates when her evaluations happen. "Unless that contract changes, that can't be done, Ms. Shah," Griffin sniped. "That can't be done, Ms. Shah. I'm so sorry," not sounding like she was. 

Shah has raised more than three times the money than Griffin has during the campaign, which has allowed her to run advertising on freeway billboards, something not usually seen in a school board race. That fundraising prowess was noted by Griffin when asked by a questioner to name something positive about her opponent. "She is a tenacious campaigner and fundraiser," she replied to the question. (Shah said she admired Griffin's speaking ability.)

Some observers have criticized Shah for being extremely vague about her goals if elected. Frequently on Friday she recited that her commitment was "for the children of Hillsborough County." 

But she grew animated when asked her opinion about high-stakes testing, saying she was completely opposed to the "excessive" amount of such tests. She said at her son's middle school last year there were 11 weeks of testing out of 20 weeks of school. "That means no instruction for 11 weeks. You take 11 weeks out of the second half of one year, times the 13 years that they're in school from kindergarten through 12th grade? We have put our children behind the rest of the world."

Griffin called the current situation in public education a manifestation of the "Testing Industrial Complex," referring to how much money is being made by companies involved with testing. She said she would be willing to opt out of such state mandated tests if it could be determine how much money would be withheld. 

Both candidates said they would be open to teaching school year-round, but they disagree on school vouchers.

"I support a parent's choice," Shah said, adding that charters and vouchers and tax credits have come forth in the past decade because of the "wide range of needs in our students." Griffin said she does not support vouchers, but did say that public schools could learn from some charter schools. "They have by legislative right the ability to engage their parents by contract. We don't have that ability, so we have to exchange with them in different ways."

Although the Common Core standards have become a pinata from both the left and the right, the candidates were asked to find something positive about the federal mandates. Griffin said that the end of course exams under Common Core are an improvement over those of the FCAT exams. 

Shah said the only thing she liked about the Common Core were the national standards, "so when a family moves from Florida to Washington, that parent will have comfort in knowing that their child's education will not be disrupted." But she said she doesn't like the curriculum, the extra exams, nor the standards imposed on teachers which she says takes away the professionalism and creativity of the classroom. 

There are two other Hillsborough County School board races on the ballot. In District 2, Michelle Popp Shimberg is facing Sally Harris. And in District 4, Melissa Snively is facing Terry Kemple. Those are both races relegated to certain portions of Hillsborough, while the Shah-Griffin contest is countywide. 

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