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DIFFERENCES FILL SCHOOL RACE

A Hillsborough contest pits well-known April Griffin against newcomer Dipa Shah.

Tony Mendolia thought he did Dipa Shah a favor when he posted to her Facebook page: "She is Catholic and NOT Muslim so don't let her name scare you. I've met her personally and she will do a fantastic job."

It's been that kind of year for Shah, a candidate for Hillsborough County School Board who's trying not to let her heritage dominate her campaign. For incumbent April Griffin, there are different challenges as she has publicly confronted the powerful administration of Superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

After dropping a bid for County Commission, Griffin, 45, got into the School Board race late. She faced criticism for friction between the board and Elia, which she said was undeserved.

Shah, 43, has had to answer her own set of questions - namely, who she is and what she stands for. Republican power-broker Sam Rashid accused her of flip-flopping, though Shah was able to get endorsements from many Republican officeholders.

Shah tries to downplay the fact that she might be the first Indian-American to run for the board. (Her faith is Jainism, which comes from India). But the primary season was marred by a hate mailer that called her a special-interest candidate with a liberal agenda.

District 6, where Shah and Griffin are running, is county-wide, which often means a crowded field. Thirteen candidates filed, eight hung around until the primary and the two runoff candidates emerged - Griffin with 27 percent of the vote and Shah with 16.

Griffin says others are at least as much to blame as she is for discord on the board. Nevertheless, she's tried to temper her remarks to avoid more conflicts.

"What you see with me is what you get," she said. "Sometimes you may not agree with my style, but I'm consistent. What I say in one part of the community, I'm going to say in another part of the community."

Shah, who some - including Griffin - have criticized for not taking clear and consistent positions, said issues such as Common Core and teacher evaluations are not always clear-cut.

She prefers to research a topic before taking a stand. "We're night and day," Shah said, comparing herself to Griffin. "I'm never going to do anything for a sound bite."

Griffin dropped out of high school after a difficult childhood and passed the General Educational Development test at 24. She was a substitute teacher, worked in technology, married an engineer and raised two sons. They were sometimes a handful in school, as she was.

"My kids are smart and they struggled with the cookie cutter approach to education," Griffin said. Now in their 20s, one has a job in technology and the other is working to become a firefighter.

Griffin beat retired School District administrator Ken Allen in her first run for office in 2006 and Sally Harris for re-election in 2010. She is working on a bachelor's degree at Eckerd College and is near completion, she said.

Shah was born in India and was a baby when the family moved to the United States. "Dad wanted to pursue the American dream," she said of her dentist father.

She grew up in suburban Philadelphia, attended Widener Law School and worked primarily in bankruptcy law.

She married a doctor and moved with him to Brandon, where she has a small business law practice. The couple's two sons are in high school and middle school.

While Shah speaks about the value of education, Griffin is adept at stating the needs of children on the fringes of the educational system, and those more suited to careers than college.

She was board chairwoman when the district dealt with the deaths of two special-needs students, one at school and the other following a medical emergency on a school bus.

Problems in the bus system persisted, prompting Elia to arrange employee focus groups. After Griffin was turned away from one of the early sessions she organized her own town hall meetings, an act that placed dozens of angry workers in front of television cameras.

"She's stood for the drivers more than anyone else," said driver Kelmie Bigelow. "April has been there for the employees, and helping keep kids safe."

Griffin's critics, including outgoing board member Candy Olson, say the administration was taking action well before Griffin got involved. But Griffin says a tipping point came when she made a whistleblowers' memo public in February. Afterwards, she adds, she and other board members continued to press for improvements.

Shah said what matters are solutions. "The superintendent and her staff tackled the transportation situation and figured out how to fix it," she said.

Shah, aware of her reputation as indecisive, said she's resolved to study every issue. "It's not that I'm wishy-washy, but I'm not going to play politics," she said.

While some would like to see her emulate District 4 candidate Terry Kemple, who sports a "Stop Common Core" button, Shah insists "it's not a one-issue thing. Common Core is something you can break down into 15 separate parts" including teaching, testing and the pace of the roll-out. She compared her approach to that of a judicial candidate. "I will be open-minded and treat every issue with fairness," she said.

Reach Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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