That seems to be The Question as candidates for the Monroe County School Board start raising campaign contributions and organize to run for the $29,000+ a year job.
Andy Griffiths, the owner of a small fleet of charter fishing boats and the senior member of the School Board, is running again. He is in his 20th year representing District 2, which comprises the upper half of Key West and Stock Island.
Griffiths was campaigning hard at the recent Taste of the Town in front of the U.S.S. Mohawk at the Truman waterfront, working the crowd, laughing and talking with prospective voters.
With Duncan Matthewson (District 3, Big Pine Key and environs) not running in 2012, Griffiths is the sole remaining board member (Board member John Dick was new in 2006), who was around before the School Board awoke and went after a culture of corruption and inside contractual deals. In 2008, Griffiths was fond of saying that the first revelations of employee credit card abuse and subsequent news coverage was overblown, thereby irritating some on the board and in the public who believed Griffiths had had his head in the sand during his previous years on the board. For 16 years, his opponents reason, Griffiths and other previous board members had been asleep at the wheel while employees raided public school funds to enrich themselves or to help friends get lucrative school construction and service contracts.
Nor did Griffiths help himself much when he repeatedly said it was not the board's role to "micromanage" the district's daily operations. That role, he reasoned, belonged to the superintendent. The board should take a 10,000-foot view, Griffiths argued, by concentrating on classroom content, ensuring teachers and students had the funds to succeed, and other broad policy tasks.
There was no crime, just that Griffiths made the arrangement with the president of the credit union at a party where the two were chatting. It was the kind of quiet arrangement made all the time during the good old days when financial agreements were made outside School Board meetings.
Griffiths went to then-Superintendent Randy Acevedo to sign off on the transfer so the money could be moved. At the time, Griffiths argued that it made sense for school money to be in the Teachers Credit Union, which makes house and car loans to teachers.
The auditor general "tsk-tsk-ed" Griffiths' inappropriate banking in its annual audit findings for the district.
Doing his duty
Griffiths also isn't what one considers a reformer, though to be fair, he didn't wait long to take the board lawyer's evidence of Monique Acevedo's illegal credit card purchases straight to the Monroe County State Attorney's Office. In spite of State Attorney Dennis Ward's grumbling that Griffith didn't bring him much, Griffiths took Ward enough evidence to launch an investigation.
"I took all of the invoices that the [school system] finance director put together for me," Griffiths said last week. "I think it weighed about five pounds."
Griffiths did not win a lot of hearts and minds during the shake up that saw Superintendent Acevedo removed by the governor and heated debate over the demotion, resignation or firing of school administrators.
After it was learned that Monique Acevedo would plead guilty to stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from school accounts (including stealing fundraising money from her daughter's class), Ward sent each board member a letter asking each to recommend punishment for the former administrator and wife of the superintendent. While two recommended jail and two left it up to the State Attorney's Office, Griffiths told a reporter that Monique Acevedo should get house arrest.
"That would allow her to work and pay restitution, Griffiths said last week. "I was not sure how she could earn money in jail to pay us back."
His suggestion of house arrest didn't please the public, which felt a strong message against theft was needed for students to grasp and hold on to. Ms. Acevedo was sentenced to eight years in prison.
Many voters perceived Griffiths' reticence to get to the bottom of things as an attempt to keep a lid on the truth. I am not sure I agree. I believe "corrupt" has no place in describing Griffiths. His colleagues on the board may question his approach, but they trust him.
For Griffiths, it's about convenience. It's inconvenient to publicly debate in detail what's wrong. It's inconvenient for individual administrators to be criticized. It's inconvenient when board members are surprised by other board members' comments in the press.
There is much to like about Griffiths, though. He is a friendly, approachable board member and pays attention to what's going on in his district and grasps issues quickly. He breaks down the budget with skill during board debate and enjoys using parables and other illustrations to make a point.
Griffiths has good connections in Tallahassee and has the time and energy to devote himself to the board.
Griffiths said he wants voters to remember that he was board chairman as the district faced its biggest crisis in a generation.
"I was the chair during this most challenging time and sat between different factions going about the scandal in their own way," he told me. "I had to bring compromise and balance. Former School Board member Steve Pribramsky [and often Griffiths' adversary on the board] would go on to say in the press that I was the best person in that role at that time."
It's too early to tell, however, whether he's the best person to continue representing the parents and students of District 2. The public has to hear more from his opponents as the campaigning takes off in the next couple of months.
Two candidates, Howard Hubbard and Yvette Mira-Talbott, are running against Griffiths on Nov. 6. Griffiths has listed himself as his sole donor so far, giving himself $1,000. Neither Hubbard nor Mira-Talbott have listed any contributions; those will show up on the next campaign reports. That will tell us who is backing which candidate. Griffiths is epected to lose some long-term supporters to Mira-Talbott, who has deep roots in the Conch community.
But it's important that voters choose the best candidate, regardless of Griffiths' decisions during the financial scandals. If Griffiths shows the best understanding of the issues and can show he has a platform that will improve the district's mission to increase student performance, then voters should choose him.
"Speaking about unpopular decisions of the past is no substitute for putting forth future solutions," Griffiths wrote in a United Teachers of Monroe candidate questionnaire recently.
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