Monday, May 21, 2018
Opinion

Tension between schools' MaryEllen Elia, April Griffin palpable

Winston Churchill once wryly observed in referring to his imperious, difficult ally Charles de Gaulle that of all the crosses he had to bear during World War II none was more burdensome than the Cross of Lorraine.

You have to suspect that whenever the Hillsborough County School Board meets, superintendent MaryEllen Elia peers over at her nemesis, board member April Griffin, and thinks: "This is going to be another bumpy night."

And it invariably is.

Simply put, the two women clearly do not laugh at the same jokes, which has made the board's meetings probably one of the more entertaining shows in town. Think of this as public education's answer to the famous Dynasty fight between Joan Collins and Linda Evans — only without the stiletto heels.

Griffin has been fairly vocal, especially in her evaluations of Elia, making it pretty clear she regards the superintendant as a duplicitous, conniving, academic huckster. For her part, Elia barely disguises her lack of respect for Griffin as merely a grandstanding dolt who simply got lucky at the voting booth.

This makes for rather fractious, dysfunctional board meetings. Fun times.

The Kiev-esque standoff was in vivid relief days ago when Elia unexpectedly showed up with a PowerPoint presentation addressing safety issues within the district's school bus system. Griffin expressed doubts Elia could legitimately investigate problems associated with her own bus operation and called for an independent investigation.

Great huffing and puffing ensued.

For a little while there, it looked like Elia might have been feeling she would soon be well rid of Griffin.

Last summer, Griffin announced plans to run for the Hillsborough County Commission, and it would have surprised no one had Elia sent her a hefty campaign contribution. But it didn't take long for Griffin to realize her chances of beating incumbent Republican Commissioner Al Higginbotham were about the same as MaryEllen Elia inviting her to a girls night out.

Griffin soon dropped out of the race, only to make Elia's wildest dreams come true by announcing she had decided not to run for re-election to the School Board as well.

But Elia's dancing the dance of happy-happy-joy-joy turned out to be short-lived.

Griffin had a change of heart, announcing she would run for a third term on the board. And yes that sound you heard was MaryEllen Elia slapping her forehead.

As a practical matter, Griffin explained she wanted to run again because she was concerned over problems she sees in the exceptional student education (ESE) program, most notably how the district bus system handles the safety of medically fragile students. Fair enough.

But it could also be argued that when you have been successfully elected to office twice, it is very difficult to walk away from a political life.

After all, one reason Griffin believed she could run for a commission seat — at least in her own mind — was the fact that she had already run and won countywide before.

School board campaigns have traditionally been staid affairs. Most people who run for these sorts of jobs are generally low-key types. Griffin, clearly, is different.

Who knows what will happen, although it would seem April Griffin would be well positioned to win a third term. And what does that mean for MaryEllen Elia?

Four more years lugging around the Cross of Kennedy Boulevard.

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