Letter shows strain between Hillsborough School Board chairwoman, superintendent

MaryEllen Elia didn’t write the letter that April Griffin had requested on behalf of a tennis player.
MaryEllen Elia didn’t write the letter that April Griffin had requested on behalf of a tennis player.
Published Sept. 6, 2013

TAMPA — April Griffin was shooting sporting clays with a friend who told her about someone who had a problem with the Hillsborough County School District.

As chairwoman of the School Board, she took an interest. Objecting to the way the district treated a Plant High School tennis player, she wrote a letter on school district stationery to state athletic officials last month.

Did Griffin overstep her authority?

"I have a right to advocate for my constituents," she said. "I did nothing wrong, and I will stand by my actions."

Fellow board members and experts in school governance have not accused her of breaking any laws or violating ethics. But some say it was an unusual course to take, and against protocol for elected school officials.

"A school board member individually has no standing," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "Only if the majority of the board is in agreement can they direct the superintendent and staff to do something."

Griffin said she told superintendent MaryEllen Elia to write to the Florida High School Athletic Association, asking it to let the student play tennis after the district ruled her ineligible based on her family's multiple addresses. She said she told Elia she'd write the letter if Elia didn't.

Blanton said Griffin had no authority to make such a demand. "An individual board member cannot direct the staff," he said.

Most school board chairmen get along with the superintendents, Blanton said, making what happened between Elia and Griffin that much more unusual.

Board members, while generally declining to take sides, said they would not have handled things the way Griffin did.

"We all have our own styles, but I certainly wouldn't have done that," said member Candy Olson, who served as the board's chair most recently in 2012.

Member Doretha Edgecomb, who was chairwoman in 2011, said, "If I were stating a personal opinion, I would not write it on board stationery because that gives an implication that it is coming from the board."

It depends on the subject, said member Stacy White. "I've written letters on School Board letterhead as long as I was writing as an individual board member," he said. "But never to take a position contrary to staff."

In Pinellas County, board Chairwoman Carol Cook said, "We have not run into that kind of situation, and I hope we would not."

Her board has guidelines that prevent such occurrences, she said. "When you put it on personal stationery, it appears you are speaking on behalf of the board or the district. We're very careful about that."

Like White, she said it is all right to use board stationery for something noncontroversial, such as an Eagle Scout recommendation.

School Board members often hear from parents who have issues with the district. The generally accepted response, they said, is to refer the matter to the staff, including the principal, and ask to be kept in the loop so they can respond to the constituent.

But Griffin contends such measures haven't worked. Staff, she said, have gone beyond board policy concerning proof of residency. She also said she is frustrated by what she says is a general lack of respect Elia has shown to those who second-guess her or the staff.

Elia declined to comment.

Griffin said her relationship with Plant High parents Mike and Nicole Mezrah developed after she took an interest in their case earlier this year. Although Mezrah owns a shooting range that Griffin frequented in the past, she said she stopped shooting there because of the situation.

When asked why she got involved in this case, she said, "This is the only one that has come to my attention."

Then she remembered another: After the Armwood High School eligibility scandal of 2012, she helped a student who owed a fine and had trouble getting his transcripts for college.

Ultimately, she said, she has the right to stand up for any constituent if she believes the person was mistreated.

"I would do the same thing for anybody," she said.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356.