Hillsborough School Board candidates offer different approaches in District 6

TAMPA — The incumbent speaks her mind and takes a stand, even at the risk of ruffling feathers. The challenger says she wants to mediate and bring people together.

Such matters of style, as much as policy differences, are what separate the two candidates running for a countywide seat on the Hillsborough County School Board in District 6.

"I think I'm someone who fights for what they believe in," says one-term incumbent April Griffin. "At least I'm standing for something."

Sally A. Harris, a preschool owner, takes a quieter approach. "I think the voters want a voice," she says. "They want to elect good listeners."

Griffin, 41, nearly won the August primary outright, with more than 48 percent of the votes, while the 60-year-old Harris bested two other challengers with 20.6 percent. But neither candidate is taking anything for granted in the Nov. 2 general election, where a single contentious issue could decide the race.

Harris said she heard more parent complaints about early-release days in the calendar — initially 14, later reduced to 12 — than any other topic. She said she favored consolidating them into one full teacher planning day per month, and scheduling them on Fridays rather than Wednesdays.

Griffin voted for both the original and amended plans, but said families raised "valid concerns" about the stress and disruption created by such days. Teachers — whose union won the half days in contract talks last summer, and endorsed Griffin — split on the issue, she said.

"I think the placement of the early release day is something that needs to be looked at very seriously if this is going to continue," Griffin says.

Both candidates support Amendment 8, which would scale back the state class-size law, saying districts need more flexibility to save elective classes.

And both support the district's seven-year, $202 million partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to overhaul teacher evaluations, add performance pay, and support teachers with mentors or peer evaluators.

"Just because someone has been in the system a long time does not mean they are the best," Harris said, describing the need for higher tenure standards. "Years should not count for success."

Griffin voiced pride at being part of a board that won such support in the midst of an economic recession, while avoiding layoffs and program cuts. But she described her support for the Gates plan in more measured terms, saying it focuses too much on college readiness and neglects vocational education.

That's a familiar theme for Griffin, who struggled in her own childhood and earned a GED rather than a regular high school diploma. She's currently studying for a degree at Hillsborough Community College.

"I grew up in an environment, unfortunately, that did not value education," Griffin said. "My mother was married five times before I was 12 years old and was addicted to substances. I dealt with life as best I could."

That meant moving out on her own, working multiple jobs, marrying early and delaying college to raise two sons. Between 1997 and 2001 she launched and helped run an information technology firm that employed 19 people before closing in the recession that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She also worked as a substitute teacher and secretary for the school district.

Now she votes on superintendent MaryEllen Elia's annual evaluation, and often gives lower marks than other board colleagues — particularly on issues like communication and the effort to increase Advanced Placement enrollment, which she believes is overdone.

"As I have done for the past four years, I will question and challenge decisions and recommendations with which I disagree," she said.

Harris worked for 20 years in the Lee and Hillsborough county school districts as an occupational specialist, after earning her high school diploma from Robinson High and taking courses at the University of South Florida and University of Florida.

In recent years she has worked full-time as director of the Circle C Ranch Academy preschool in South Tampa, which she founded. But it hasn't always been easy.

In 2008 she and her husband narrowly avoided foreclosure on their home; a final judgment against them for $722,184 was dropped after they found a buyer. And last April a court found her liable for $23,206 in debts and court costs owed on her Jaguar.

Harris blamed the recession and sinking enrollment at her preschool. By last year her annual income had dropped from $80,000 to just $12,000. But she kept her employees on the payroll and encouraged several to work toward college degrees.

"Do we save the business and 22 people's jobs, or do we let the house and car go?" she asked. "I'd do it again, because those people have been loyal to me in putting that business together."

Along the way she raised seven children and stepchildren, adopted two more, and served as PTA president in five different schools.

"I think that's what I represent," Harris said. "I definitely come from the worker bees of the world."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Hillsborough School Board candidates offer different approaches in District 6 10/11/10 [Last modified: Monday, October 18, 2010 12:08pm]

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