Joe Henderson: April Griffin's impact on Hillsborough schools has been immense - Florida Politics

Joe Henderson: April Griffin’s impact on Hillsborough schools has been immense

As she prepares to leave the Hillsborough County School Board after 12 often-tumultuous years when her term expires in November, April Griffin deserves to be remembered as one of the most impactful public servants ever in Hillsborough County.

That’s a bold statement, yes.

I stand by it though because it is true whether you liked her or not, and there are plenty of volunteers on sides. Most notably, she led the charge that ended with the ouster of rock star superintendent MaryEllen Elia a little more than three years ago.

It set off an emotional communitywide debate, and Griffin was the flashpoint for those who disagreed. Elia was the darling of civic, business and political leaders — including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. The vote to oust Elia was 4-3, but most of the opposition outrage was aimed at Griffin because she and Elia couldn’t get along.

Why? I think it’s because Griffin kept asking questions Elia didn’t believe she had to answer.

I was one of the few media members who supported Griffin and the school board insurgents against the popular Elia. I wrote numerous columns for the Tampa Tribune on the subject, sharing my opinion that Elia — a tremendously talented woman — had become autocratic and vindictive against those who dared oppose her.

For me, the crowning blow was the death of a special-needs child after an incident on a school bus. News of the death didn’t become public until several months later after the parents filed a lawsuit.

Elia said she didn’t release details of the death because there was no police report, but that sounded to me like an exercise in public relations. It doesn’t look good when children die. Among those speaking against Elia the night she was fired was the parent of another special-needs child. They never felt like Elia cared about them.

Elia supporters vowed revenge against Griffin at the ballot box, but they overlooked one thing.

Against a highly qualified opponent, Dipa Shah, Griffin was re-elected with 65 percent of the vote in a countywide election just two months before the action was taken against Elia — despite the fact the superintendent had a yard sign supporting Shah.

This result was after everyone knew she would try to get Elia fired. While she may not have been popular with the big-wigs, it looked like the regular folks had her back.

Griffin could be petty, like the time she let if slip over an open mic that Elia was full of cow droppings (figure it out). She could be cutting. Even now, she is accusing board member Melissa Snivley of being in cahoots with a Facebook page that has targeted her and board member Susan Valdes.

She wasn’t always the most diplomatic person either. That helped earn her and fellow board insurgents the nickname Mean Girls.

That is unfortunate. No one worked harder than Griffin and maybe part of the problem is that she didn’t take things at face value.

She asked hard questions. She didn’t play along to get along. She believed her job was to ensure all students got the best education possible, not just those ultrahigh achievers in advanced placement programs.

Something must be working.

Hillsborough’s graduation rate for 2017 set a county record at 82.9 percent — up nearly 10 percentage points from when Elia was forced out.

The change was even more dramatic at one-time problem high schools like Armwood (13 percent jump) and Chamberlain (12 percent).

That deserves to be part of April Griffin’s legacy as well. She is not solely responsible for that, of course, but she had a hand in crafting policies that made the improvement possible.

That’s what I mean about impact.

That’s also why I can this: Despite all the controversy, April Griffin will leave the board better than she found it.

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

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