TAMPA — Reflecting on her eight years on the Hillsborough County School Board, April Griffin is sure of two things — she feels good about what she has achieved and she is ready for four more years.
“I'm really proud of the fact I have kept every single campaign promise I've made,” Griffin said. “I said I was going to question the administration, ask tough questions, advocate for career and technical education. That I was going to show up, work hard, do my homework. That's what I've done.”
Now seeking a third term on the board, the 45-year-old Griffin will have to beat seven others who also are running for the countywide seat.
District 6 is the only one of three nonpartisan school board races that is open to all county voters. Early voting for the Aug. 26 primary election begins Thursday.
A winner could be determined if one of the candidates secures 50 percent plus one vote. If not, the top two will face off in the Nov. 4 general election.
School board members serve four year terms and earn nearly $41,000 annually.
Griffin, who was elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2010, didn't always envision a third term on the board. She originally said she would not seek re-election so that she could run as a Democrat for a spot on the Hillsborough County Commission.
But once school district transportation employees began coming forward with complaints and concerns toward the end of 2013, she said, she realized there was more work to be done, especially in the areas of transportation and special education.
“I had a lot of unfinished business,” she said.
In early 2014, four transportation training specialists penned a memorandum that was sent to Griffin and her six fellow board members, detailing concerns with the department's leadership, including inadequate support and procedures for employees when it comes to handling special-needs students. They cited an incident involving a medically fragile student who needed immediate attention.
The memo was used to help the district come up with a plan for improvement, which addresses a shortage of drivers, low employee morale and an aging yellow bus fleet.
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Before the recent transportation issues, Griffin criticized the way the school district handled the 2012 deaths of two special-needs students, which prompted the district to revamp its exceptional student education department. 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. The head of the ESE department left the job, a task force was formed and the district began ramping up its training efforts for handling special-needs students.
Griffin and other board members were unhappy the board did not hear about the first student death before a news conference.
If elected to a third term, Griffin wants to talk about retooling the way the superintendent is evaluated and look at how the district's Office of Professional Standards is run, and examine the process the district goes through to fire teachers. In general, she wants more transparency.
Griffin has clashed at times with the district's top official, Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, saying Elia doesn't communicate well with board members and has an “unyielding” leadership style. She gave Elia the lowest possible scores on the superintendent's annual evaluation last fall. In this year's evaluation, released Thursday, Griffin gave her higher ratings.
Griffin would like the board to take another look at the district's teacher-evaluation system and urge her fellow board members to take an official stance on the Florida Standards, the state's version of the Common Core State Standards, which students will be tested on for the first time this year.
“The more I get to know about it, the less I like it,” Griffin said. “I think we should be more vocal in our dislike of certain elements of it.”
The District 6 race at one time was even more crowded. Several candidates, including philanthropist Charles Brink and teacher Russ Patterson, dropped out when Griffin announced in February she would run again after all.
According to the most recent financial records filed with the Supervisor of Elections Office, Griffin has raised $16,835 in campaign contributions from individuals and businesses, including $1,000 from Brink and $100 from Patterson. Tampa City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern has contributed to Griffin's campaign.
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Griffin's opponents also want a more transparent school district, but they say it's time for a change in District 6.
Candidate Stacy Hahn, a former public school teacher and currently the director of the University of South Florida's undergraduate special education department, decided to run after hearing about the two student deaths.
As a board member, the 47-year-old Hahn would lend her expertise in education policy to district staff and the board in looking at ways to improve in areas such as training for ESE teachers.
“It's one thing to study up on the issues, but I've been living the issues of public education for two decades,” she said.
Hahn said she would focus on drawing highly qualified teachers, improving student achievement and expanding school choice options for parents. Her sons attend Christ the King Catholic School, which she says was a faith-based choice for her and her husband.
Hahn, who has raised $34,465, also would try to strengthen the relationships among school board members, as well as board members and the administration. She has been endorsed by businessman Tom Pepin.
Randy Toler, 58, aims to serve as a voice for the thousands of special-needs students who attend district schools. Toler has three children who attend district schools, including a 6-year-old son who is autistic.
A founder of the American Green Party, Toler would push for more training for special education teachers and for the creation of a volunteer-run ombudsmen office that would help parents of special-needs children.
“I'm trying to change this mentality of dictating to parents exactly what their ESE child needs to know and do,” Toler said.
Like Griffin, Toler — who has raised $9,434 — wants to revamp the way the superintendent is evaluated.
Paula Meckley, 53, says she has a record of working with parents and teachers to get projects completed. As an example, Meckley led the successful charge to remove the “Voyages” math program from district elementary schools.
“I know a lot about the ins and outs of the district,” she said. “I've been on both sides. I have been a big proponent and I've been against them.”
For 18 years, Meckley has been active in PTA and the other parent groups. She ran a tutoring program at struggling schools for several years. Her two daughters graduated from Hillsborough schools, and her son attends Plant High.
As a board member, Meckley said she would examine new and existing academic programs and curricula, teacher training and school technology to see if improvements can be made. She also would work with district staff and the board to make the district's $2.9 billion budget “more readable” for the average taxpayer.
Meckley has raised $68,575, including donations from former Florida Board of Education member Kathleen Shanahan and Tampa City Councilman Charlie Miranda.
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Temple City Councilwoman Alison McGillivray Fernandez, 46, brings experience as a former financial auditor, elected official and school volunteer. She has four sons who attend district schools.
“I have the business and financial background that enables me to analyze financial information,” she said. “I have been an active volunteer with high-achieving students and low-achieving students. I have a very good understanding of the achievement gap the district is dealing with.”
As a school board member, Fernandez — who has raised $6,167 — wants to help form a stronger partnership between the school district and the public.
“I do not think enough critical questions are asked in a public forum,” she said. “I do not think the discourse that goes on between some board members and the administration is professional.”
Hillsborough Community College student Asher Edelson, 20, said improving student nutrition would be at the top of his priority list as a school board member. He wants to see more organic and locally grown foods and less processed items in school cafeterias.
Edelson, who has raised $2,716, also would push to have video of board workshops streamed online, as is the case with regular board meetings. He would call for the state to drop the new education standards, as well as the test that will replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test next school year.
“I understand that might be a difficult thing,” he said. “But you don't give up on something just because it's a difficult process.”
Even so, Edelson said it's important to make sure teachers and students are prepared, because the standards already are in place.
If elected, real-estate associate and Hillsborough native Lee Sierra, 32, said he will focus on recruiting, evaluating and keeping good teachers, as well as making sure as much funding as possible ends up in district classrooms. He wants to see standardized testing tailored more toward local school districts.
After college at the University of Central Florida, Sierra moved back to Hillsborough and became a substitute teacher and volunteer basketball coach.
“It's time for new blood and a new perspective in which we all work together to solve problems and ultimately better prepare students for the workplace and lifelong success,” said Sierra, who has raised $5,140.
Brandon attorney Dipa Shah says her experience as a school volunteer, business owner and parent of two Hillsborough students will serve her well on the board.
As a board member, Shah would focus on making sure the district is doing what it can to make sure schools are on track with the new education standards.
Shah — who has raised the most money in her race with $94,942 in campaign contributions — has the endorsements of the Tampa Fire Fighters, and the local International Association of Fire Fighters labor union, as well as the United Christians of Florida political action committee.
“What I've loved about this process is how much I've learned about Hillsborough County,” she said. “Everybody is focused on the same thing — we want what's best for our children so they have opportunities for success in their lives. People are ready to see someone make a difference.”