TAMPA – April Griffin announced in November she was ready to leave her seat on the Hillsborough County School Board once her second term is up to focus on spending time with her family and finishing school.
At the time, she had just entered then exited the race for an open seat on the Hillsborough County Commission.
But plans have changed again.
Griffin said Friday she will seek a third term in her District 6 countywide seat after all because of issues in the school district’s transportation and special education departments that she believes need to be resolved. She was elected to the nonpartisan board in 2006 and re-elected in 2010.
“It’s been a very difficult decision for me to come to,” Griffin said. “I had job offers on the table. I was ready to move in a different direction and very excited about what my future held with my husband.”
The school district began revamping its special education department in 2012 after two student deaths. That January, a student died one day after having a medical emergency on a bus on the way home from school. The following October, a student with Down syndrome wandered away from gym class and drowned in a pond on school property.
As a result, two aides were fired and a principal and assistant principal were demoted. Additionally, the head of the exceptional student education department left the job, an ESE task force was formed and the district began ramping up its training efforts for handling special-needs students.
“I felt a lot of progress had been made,” Griffin said.
But more issues came to light last week in the form of a memorandum written by four transportation training specialists that was sent to Griffin and her six fellow board members. It detailed concerns with the department’s leadership, including inadequate support and procedures for employees when it comes to handling special-needs students.
“The board has been told time and time again we are moving in a positive direction,” Griffin said. “I’m seeing now, in allegations from employees, that is not the case. The board has been misled.”
Among the transportation specialists’ concerns was that they were being told not to document issues with special education students.
“It is unacceptable,” Griffin said.
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The school district’s Office of Professional Standards has launched an investigation into an incident mentioned in the document involving a medically fragile student who needed immediate attention. When asked, his driver did not know if he had been deemed a “red alert” student, the memo states.
“What got my attention was his account of the boy in the wheelchair whose head was touching his feet,” Griffin said.
District spokesman Stephen Hegarty said the investigation should wrap up soon.
Meanwhile, some transportation staffers plan to voice their own concerns to school board members. “It’s so bad on many different levels,” said Corie Holmes, one of the four employees who penned the memo. He also is running for a seat on the Manatee County Commission. “It’s a major leadership issue.”
Griffin frequently clashes with the district’s top official, Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, and gave her the lowest possible scores on her annual evaluation last fall, faulting her for poor performance in leadership — specifically, in how she handled the deaths of the two special-needs students.
Griffin, who served as the board’s chairwoman from November 2012 to November 2013, was unhappy the board did not hear about the first student death before a news conference.
“This all just fell in my lap as I was moving into my chairmanship,” Griffin said. “That’s where a lot of the stress and tension between MaryEllen and I started bubbling to the surface. We had been working together really well prior to that.”
Griffin said employees are mired in low morale.
In a recent board workshop, she and several others on the board noted they have heard that employees are told not to speak to board members.
“This culture is creating all of these problems,” Griffin said.
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Out of three school board races to be decided in this year’s election, District 6 is the most crowded, with 10 candidates. But candidates John Evon and Russ Patterson said they plan to drop out to support Griffin.
“If she had been running, I would never have entered the race,” said Patterson, a King High School special education teacher, who believes the school district administration needs to be more transparent. “She is a true voice for teachers, students and parents. You need to have a school board that holds the administration accountable.”
Evon, a former educator who served as vice chairman of the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County from 2007 to 2013, said he is a friend of Griffin’s and wants to support her campaign. He said he might run for a spot on the board in 2016.
Patterson and Evon have not officially withdrawn and Griffin has not yet filed to run, according to the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections website.
District 6 candidate Randy Toler, a parent and Green Party leader, said he’s still the best candidate for the job.
“I think I can beat her,” Toler said. “It doesn’t change anything for me.”
Candidate Dipa Shah, on the other hand, was surprised to hear the news. She, too, plans to stay in the race.
“This is not about me anymore,” said Shah, a Brandon lawyer and mother of two. “I really feel I can do what’s right by these kids.”
The primary election is Aug. 26.