TAMPA — Hillsborough County School Board member Stacy White disappointed chairwoman April Griffin when he cast the deciding vote against hiring an independent auditor.
As Griffin saw it, White was going against his promise to push for more accountability in a school district that spends almost $3 billion a year.
As White saw it, the auditor idea was well intended but structurally flawed.
Now Griffin is campaigning for a seat on the Hillsborough County Board of Commissioners. And White is not far behind.
In an interview last week, he said he is "99.9 percent certain" he will run for the District 4 east Hillsborough seat in 2014. Commissioner Al Higginbotham cannot seek re-election in that district due to term limits.
"Right now I feel like I'm tiptoeing into the water," White said. "But when my mind's made up, it will be full speed ahead."
White, a 41-year-old Republican, insisted he is not trying to distance himself from Griffin, a Democrat.
"April and I have been able to find common ground on many occasions as School Board members, and I anticipate that will continue to be the case," he said.
Nor has he ruled out the auditor idea. If Griffin were to reintroduce it using a different section of state law, which calls for performance audits and not just financial audits, he said he would consider supporting it.
White said he is not backing down from his stance that superintendent MaryEllen Elia and her administration must be accountable to the board and the public. He takes credit, in his two years in office, for making her staff more responsive to the board's concerns.
He spoke out about morale problems under the district's new teacher evaluation system, and he believes a teachers' survey came as a result. He has criticized Elia in her evaluations, particularly on issues of budget transparency. He was especially critical about the lack of disclosure in the 2012 death of special-needs student Isabella Herrera.
He believes that, unlike past boards, the current board stands up to Elia. Case in point: They rejected a security plan that would put an armed guard or resource officer in every school, costing $3.7 million a year.
"I think MaryEllen Elia, in this environment, has to really take notice of all seven board members and really take into account what's on each of our minds," he said. "I think she's counting all seven heads before she moves anything forward."
Elia said she and the administration always take board member comments seriously.
As for White, she said, "I would say that he has brought up a number of excellent points." Upon reflection "they have caused some change in what we are doing."
Griffin, for her part, is trying to put the auditor episode behind her and find other ways to maintain a balance of power between the board and administration.
"I'm having to adjust my sails," she said. "In politics, nothing is guaranteed."
For White, a relative newcomer to politics, the past two years have been a learning experience. He's been on the losing end of some 6-1 votes, but he has cultivated constituencies that can help him down the road.
Teachers sought him out with concerns about the Empowering Effective Teachers project at a time when other board members were effusively praising the Gates-funded experiment.
In a controversy over classroom speakers from the Council for American-Islamic Relations, White went against the grain by supporting Terry Kemple, a conservative activist who wanted to keep CAIR out of schools. Kemple has made two runs for School Board and will likely run for the east Hillsborough seat if White steps down.
On Sept. 11, White took part in a news conference with Kemple and other anti-CAIR activists in front of school district headquarters. The event attracted counter-protesters and degenerated into a shouting match on what is a solemn day of reflection.
White expresses no regrets.
"He invited me to speak and I had a lot of constituents down there that were part of that audience," he said. "So I felt like it was my duty to go down there and address the crowd."
White, a pharmacist who lives in Valrico, describes himself as a social conservative. A father of three, he is married to Barbie White, a full-time mother who is so active in PTA that when he visits his children's schools, he said, "they call me Mr. Barbie."
Though he is a strong supporter of Kemple and former Republican state Sen. Ronda Storms, White has been slow to champion social issues while in office. He expects the same will be true if he wins the commission race.
"Those issues are very important to me," he said. "But what really matters the most with respect to the county commission are the potholes. Road improvement. Smart growth. Jobs. Economic development. My focus is going to be on the day-to-day business of the county."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356.