Sunday, May 27, 2018
Education

Carlton: Lessons from a Hillsborough School Board rock star

If, within the stodgy confines of a school board it is possible to be a rock star, for a minute there it was April Griffin.

Or if not a rock star, at least what looked like a hit-the-ground reformer.

She showed up plain-talking about practical career and technical education as viable options for students. She pushed for transparency in a sometimes opaque Hillsborough County school system, bucked the administration and championed special needs. She wanted answers.

Now, two terms and eight years later, Griffin finds herself facing no less than seven challengers in a fight to keep her seat — Asher Edelson, Alison McGillivray Fernandez, Stacy Hahn, Paula Meckley, Dipa Shah, Lee Sierra and Randy Toler. Two major newspapers that recommended her to voters in the past, including this one, gave someone else the nod in the upcoming primary — notable when you are the incumbent. Political gossip over cafe con leche at the West Tampa Sandwich Shop or spinach salads at the Oxford Exchange says she may be vulnerable.

Whither, April Griffin?

News reports ran out of verbs for what happened at some memorable encounters. She squabbled, clashed, bickered, take your pick, with Hillsborough's politically savvy school superintendent MaryEllen Elia. It takes two to tango — or is that tangle? — but Elia was way better at rising above it.

So no matter which side of that day's argument you were on, it started to seem picayune and personality-driven. When Griffin gave Elia the lowest marks in an evaluation last year, she added asterisks to indicate she would go lower if she could. Take that.

And so the good that Griffin did do — relentlessly pushing serious issues like bus safety — could get lost in how it played out.

This week I asked her about this very different race. She says she is proud to have kept her campaign promises. She says she did not sell this town "a bad bill of goods."

"I said from the beginning that I was going to ask the tough questions. I have not wavered from that at all," she says. True enough.

Candidates crowded into this race, she says, because they thought it would be an open seat back when she was expected to run for the Hillsborough County Commission. The campaign is going well, she says.

And regrets? She has a few.

She once told reporters in the heat of a moment that Elia was "full of s---," words that instantly eclipsed the actual dispute at hand. Crass, she says, and not a moment to be proud of. Griffin also says maybe she should have been more engaged in the politics — the functions, the "cocktail conversations" that are part of getting your side of things out into the world.

And then she pushes back: Being married 25 years means she does know something about yielding, compromising and giving-and-taking. Relationships, she says, are "two-way streets," and by now we are not talking about her husband. "I think in politics, being outspoken is not understood," she says.

And then, more carefully: "I think I have sometimes been maybe a little too outspoken." And voters can decide if even a former rock star can have a learning experience.

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