Florida Keys News
Saturday, October 19, 2013
Complaint becomes hot potato
Salary increase at center of contention

The war of words between school district watchdog Larry Murray and School Board Chairman Andy Griffiths, is escalating.

At issue is Griffiths' handling of a complaint filed by Murray two weeks ago, alleging that Superintendent Mark Porter had lied about a subordinate's pay rate at a board meeting.

At that Aug. 13 board meeting, under questioning from District 4 member John Dick, Porter told the board that Christina McPherson would be receiving the same salary as before, even as her position as director of Assessment and Accountability was expanded to include the additional role of interim principal of Poinciana Elementary School.

McPherson did end up with a salary bump of $9,200, however.

The state Department of Education (DOE,) following official policy, sent the complaint to board Chairman Andy Griffiths, advising him to deal with the matter as he saw fit.

Griffiths last week indicated that he would discuss the issue with the board at the next meeting.

But this response has stuck in the craw of Murray, who sees Griffiths sweeping the matter under the rug. In a recent email exchange with Griffiths, he hinted at further action on his part, should the entire matter not be properly investigated.

"I would like to see two things," Murray said Friday. "No. 1, that the full board be officially informed that there is a complaint lodged by myself with the inspector general of the DOE. And No. 2, that my complaint be investigated in some fashion by an independent party to establish the voracity of my complaint. It is my understanding, from an email exchange with district legal counsel Dirk Smits, that he is suggesting the same thing, that an investigation be done. Mr. Smits informed me that 'the board needs to have staff work on issues, and report' before addressing it and discussing it themselves. I take that to mean some kind of investigation."

But in an email exchange between Griffiths and Smits, the attorney seems to suggest that in speaking with the superintendent about the issue, and referring the matter to counsel, Griffiths may have already satisfied the DOE's requirement.

"We always look into alleged issues," Smits wrote. "If the superintendent does anything with it you will know. Again you have done your job. It is in staff's hands. If it merits any action you will be advised. The word "investigation" implies some type of problem which (at least from what I know) doesn't exist. The Board has nothing to do at this point, and may not ever."

Reached for comment on Friday, Griffiths said, "I spoke with the Inspector General's office to confirm that my interpretation of their instruction was accurate. I also confirmed with the school district's attorney that my actions were appropriate. To quote the DOE's letter, the chairman would 'take action as he deemed appropriate.' The action I deemed appropriate was to meet with the superintendent and ask him to clarify his answer about administrators' salaries."

Murray, however isn't buying Griffiths' take on the issue.

"What Andy seemed to be saying to Bill Becker a week ago, and what he said to me in an email is that he's going to handle this himself," Murray said. "I disagree with this approach because I believe that this is a board issue, something that affects the entire board, and not just the chairman. [Griffiths is taking the advice from the Inspector General's office far too literally."

At least one board member agrees with Murray, that more should be done to investigate the substance of the original complaint.

District 3's Ed Davidson, who has been a consistent critic of many of Porter's policies, said Friday that he thought the matter should be brought to the full board.

"There's no question," Davidson said. "This is a serious, policy-level discussion that merits school board involvement and comment."

But the school board member, whose question at an Aug. 13 board meeting inspired Murray's complaint, disagrees.

"I think that this is a classic blown-out-of-proportion item," said District 4's John Dick. "Years ago we had serious problems in the district. These problems pale in comparison, but they're being given the same play. This whole thing is not a big deal. Besides, the board as a group could not be involved with the complaint, because there would be Sunshine issues. I'm fine with letting Andy deal with it."

In an interview last week with The Citizen, Porter said that he regretted that answer he gave Dick at the meeting, calling it unclear. He also expressed exasperation with the volume of record requests by school watchdogs such as Murray.

"Since I've been here we've probably spent in excess of $10,000 dealing with these requests," Porter said, "which is $10,000 less that we have to spend in school classrooms. It can be frustrating."

tschmida@keysnews.com

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