Tampa Bay business leaders shudder at loss of MaryEllen Elia

MaryEllen Elia was a key part of Tampa/Hillsborough's economic dream team, the business and education leadership group that has become so influential in selling this metro area to corporations looking to expand or relocate. Elia also won business kudos for helping shape education to better prepare students as a relevant future workforce, Robert Trigaux writes. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
MaryEllen Elia was a key part of Tampa/Hillsborough's economic dream team, the business and education leadership group that has become so influential in selling this metro area to corporations looking to expand or relocate. Elia also won business kudos for helping shape education to better prepare students as a relevant future workforce, Robert Trigaux writes. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Published January 21 2015
Updated January 22 2015

Just three weeks into a new year, Tuesday's dismissal of Hillsborough County's school superintendent by a 4-3 School Board vote may stand as 2015's most damaging self-inflicted blow to our regional economy.

MaryEllen Elia will survive and prosper — elsewhere. But come next election, do not forget these four School Board names whose vindictive votes forced out Florida's Superintendent of the Year at a cost of $1.1 million. Make sure your own vote ensures the public careers of tone-deaf board members Susan Valdes, April Griffin, Cindy Stuart and Sally Harris end quickly.

All four flunked this leadership exam.

Elia, 66, was a key part of Tampa/Hillsborough's economic dream team, the business and education leadership group that has become so influential in selling this metro area to corporations looking to expand or relocate. Elia also won business kudos for helping shape education to better prepare students as a relevant future workforce.

"A school system committed to high-quality standards and working with the business community to ensure development of a qualified workforce is the most important asset a community can offer," Tampa/Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. CEO Rick Homans said. "It's the foundation of everything we do."

Elia frequently joined area business leaders when talking to expanding companies. She was there "with enthusiasm and credibility," Homans said. "She was a strong presence at the table."

Robust support for Elia from the business community ran wide and deep at Tuesday's School Board meeting where the superintendent was ultimately fired. Kathleen Shanahan — CEO of Tampa's Uretek construction company, former chairwoman of the State Board of Education and former chief of staff to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — circulated an online petition, capturing 1,100 signatures to retain a "world-class superintendent." The Tampa Port Authority took the extra step to approve a resolution supporting Elia. A "stunned" vice president at Tampa's Caspers, a major operator of McDonald's, told the board the real firing "will happen at the ballot box."

"I woke up feeling sick, angry and frustrated," lamented former Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, an Elia fan who attended Tuesday's hearing. "I do not know if this board is up to the task of building the best educational system."

Elia was not perfect. Even some business leaders sensed at times that she lacked political finesse and patience. Her personality could be intimidating. That may be why some business groups like the Tampa chamber considered but then skipped a resolution in her support.

Still, without Elia at the helm, I doubt the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation would have chosen Hillsborough for its $100 million school grant back in 2009. Now Hillsborough will have to rebuild its national educational reputation scorched by pettiness.

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] or (727) 893-8405. Follow @venturetampabay.

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