Andy Griffiths, one of the Florida Keys’ longest-serving elected officials who has served on the county school board for more than 30 years, has decided he will not seek reelection when his term ends in November 2024.
Griffiths called the changes he has seen in his 30-plus years on the school board “mind-boggling.”
When he first was elected to the board in 1992 there was no internet in the schools — no Google, no social media, no touch screens, no smartphones. The rare cell phones had as much heft as a small child. Much of the equipment and methods in use had been largely unchanged for 50 years.
The onslaught of new technology requires constant policy creation, which is the job of a school board, Griffiths emphasized, saying, “Boards do not manage; they govern, at least in this instance. The board creates policy that sets parameters for management to stay within while pursuing board-approved district goals. And then the board has meetings to check on the progress towards said targets.”
In 1992, the average school building in the Florida Keys was 30 years old, and in most cases included structural and design flaws. Today, Griffiths’ name appears on the cornerstone of every traditional public school, each of which has been replaced during his tenure on the school board. He said he believes each school will outlast the kids of today’s graduating class. This is the result of a half-billion dollar effort over the course of three decades that saw every traditional public school in the county replaced. All of the recently constructed schools are of superior engineering and built to withstand the strongest hurricane winds.
The school board kicked off its ambitious construction program to replace its school buildings by enacting a half-cent sales tax in 1995, and immediately bonded the revenue from that tax to its building plan, Griffiths said.
“With a sales tax, we export our tax burden to our visitors because tourists statistically pay far more sales tax than our permanent residents,” he added.
State law dictates that funds derived from sales tax can only be used for construction and renovation, not teacher salaries and other in-classroom needs. So in 2004, the school board reduced the tax that it levies for construction needs, and with voter approval enacted a new tax in the same amount of the reduction, allowing the school district to use revenue from the new tax to increase teachers’ earnings.
Griffiths has worked with superintendents who were elected by the voters, appointed by the governor and more recently, selected by the board. Superintendent Theresa Axford is the 10th superintendent with whom Griffiths has worked — and the district’s first female one.
After his first election in 1992, Griffiths faced challengers to his reelection in 1996, 2004 and 2012. He has run unopposed four times and faced an opponent as many times, for a total of eight election cycles. While he jokingly says that of course it’s better to run unopposed, he acknowledges that a challenger in an election forces the incumbent to reconnect with the community. It’s a long county, geographically, and a Keyswide campaign is challenging.
“I know a lot about this district, its inner workings and its history,” said Griffiths, the longest-serving elected official in the Florida Keys. “I also know the budget, and when I leave, that goes with me. I have worked well with other board members who have differences of opinion. We have a great board right now and I’ll miss my colleagues. I will also miss my peers across Florida as I’ve developed great friendships with other board members statewide.”
In 2004, Griffiths became president of the Florida School Boards Association, which represents 65 of 67 school districts in Florida.
“It was one of my greatest honors to lead all Florida school board members. The association had 27 directors on its board, and I enjoyed chairing those meetings, which could get very lively. By comparison, it’s a piece of cake to chair our local board of five members. I still plan to visit my colleagues by attending state conferences. In what capacity, that isn’t known yet,” he said.
What about a continued future in politics? Griffiths acknowledges that he has a strong network of contacts and connections throughout the state and beyond, plus decades of experience that could lend itself to other areas of governing. But the avid fisherman and father of two says he plans to enjoy his free time.
“I think I’m going to appreciate retirement for a while but, in addition to more advanced technology in schools, my interests run outside of education. Maybe I need to polish up my standup comedy routine?” he said, only half-joking.