She led a superintendents' revolt against Tallahassee over questionable test scores, and spoke up for teachers in Washington amid anti-union talk.
Last week she was back in Tampa, teaching school leaders from across the state how to surf the waves of education change.
"We need to be adults," Hillsborough school superintendent MaryEllen Elia said, urging them to resolve their differences. "That means working hand-in-hand with our teachers and teachers' unions to make this a productive reform effort in Florida."
Lately it seems like Elia is everywhere — and arguably more in the national news than Florida's own education commissioner, with appearances on The Early Show on CBS and upper-crust media outlets like Newsweek and the Economist. Her name has been floated as a possible state or even national education leader.
How has she done it?
With a little sugar and a little salt. Call it forceful collaboration.
"You have to work with people," said Elia, 62, referring to Hillsborough's district-union partnership. "But some people who are reluctant to do that need to leave that career, they need to leave teaching."
Under Elia, the 192,000-student district has achieved a level of efficiency and ambition that few large, urban districts can match. Low-income and minority students have been pushed into advanced placement courses in unprecedented numbers, and passing rates have increased. And teachers are helping to rate their colleagues and make the case to fire those who can't perform. That was an idea her union suggested 30 years ago, Elia said.
She has also done it by running a tight ship.
Under Elia, the nation's eighth-largest school district aggressively promotes its achievements and downplays problems. Controversies are snuffed out with alacrity, and even the greenest rookie teacher gets an e-mailed copy of the district's talking points.
Some criticize that approach, saying too much happens behind closed doors, or employee dissent is stifled too readily by middle managers. But supporters say it has brought clear results.
Since Elia's appointment in 2005, Hillsborough has innovated relentlessly, testing changes months or years before reform-minded legislators tried to mandate them. Last year the district won a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support such efforts.
By leaning forward into the winds of change, and showing a unified front with her teachers' union, Elia has put Hillsborough — and herself — on the national map.
• • •
She was lucky; in a district that rarely appoints outsiders to positions of power, Elia found a powerful mentor.
Transferred to Tampa in 1986 after 16 years teaching in upstate New York, she was hired as a reading specialist at Plant High.
Her principal, the late Beth Shields, told the St. Petersburg Times in 2005 that she saw immediate leadership potential after seeing Elia persuade instructors in all subjects to teach reading.
"Teachers got on the bandwagon, because she had great ideas and planned them out," Shields said.
Together they flew up the ranks. Elia rose from director of magnet schools to general director of secondary education and, in 2003, chief facilities officer.
Shields, by that time a deputy superintendent, taught her protege to stand firm under fire — a skill she would soon need.
In 2001, with the district scrambling to build new schools to keep up with enrollment, Elia faced angry parents after shoddy construction forced emergency repairs at the brand-new Symmes Elementary. And in 2005 Elia was forced to backpedal on the site for a school for children with disabilities, after some objected to its proximity to strip clubs and X-rated video stores.
It wasn't her first taste of conflict. Years earlier as a teacher, Elia had gone to bat for her own son.
A progressive visual handicap had left him legally blind and unable to read his 11th grade reading anthology. Though he was enrolled at a private school, Elia went public to get the book copied in large print.
She sought help from the school district, state, and eventually enlisted a lawyer to pressure a reluctant publishing company.
"That was a fight, and I took it on as a parent," she said. "I was shocked that they didn't allow it, but ultimately they did."
• • •
Last August, Elia was on the other side of the table.
Parents were lined up out the door of the School Board meeting room to complain about school schedules.
"Take a step back and think," urged parent Sharon Britton. "Let's come up with another solution that works for everyone."
All summer a vocal group of parents had been protesting the large number of early release days for teacher planning — more than a dozen, at that point — that had been put into the school calendar in negotiations with their union.
Now, as the board prepared to vote on that contract, parents let fly.
"I will vote against early release days with my time, energy, and ballot," parent Fon Silvers warned.
Eventually the early-release furor would ease. Elia named a handful of parents to a board subcommittee and told them to find a solution. (Their recommendation — starting school an hour late most Mondays, rather than 12 half-days per year — is now before the board.)
Parent member Curtis Moreau said Elia did a "great job" of defusing the issue, in part by reaching beyond a vocal minority of parents for input.
"I think that parents across the district, they should know that the district listens," said Moreau, praising his children's administrators at Carrollwood Elementary.
But parent Joyce Brown reeled off a long list of problems — poor enforcement of dress codes, shoddy communication with parents, lax academic standards — in the New Tampa schools where her son has been taught.
"I'm having to supplement what's not being taught in the schools," said Brown, a retired Pasco County teacher. "My son has had some very, very good teachers, and some of the worst."
In her experience, the quality of education in Hillsborough varies dramatically from neighborhood to neighborhood. "Every school you go to, it's different," Brown said. "We look at our kids and we ask, why are our kids getting the bad end of the stick?"
Elia said she does her best to visit schools, pop into classrooms unannounced, and cast a wide net before making key decisions.
"In a very large district, I cannot please everyone," she said. "But you know, I'm a parent. If I felt there was an issue with my child, I would want people to address the issue."
• • •
Most afternoons, School Board meetings run like a Swiss watch. Elia meets every other week with each member to talk about district plans and answer their questions. And before every board meeting, Elia and the chairwoman hold a closed-door "agenda review" to ensure all is ready.
"I'd like an opportunity to know the question so I can get an answer for them," Elia said. "If a board member disagrees, I want to be able to give them the rationale for the agenda item and my recommendation."
But in February of 2009, the surprise was most welcome.
A senior Gates Foundation official had called to see if Hillsborough might be interested in helping to prove, once and for all, what factors make teachers most effective.
The foundation sought reform-minded districts willing to use student test scores and other measures to rigorously evaluate teachers, reward the best with more pay, and terminate those who couldn't improve.
And in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, it was willing to pay — perhaps up to $100 million.
Here was money to make rapid, comprehensive changes. They could train new teachers properly, help veterans reach struggling students, and jettison a toothless evaluation system that had rated 99.5 percent of the district's 12,500 teachers as satisfactory or outstanding.
For five months, Elia led an aggressive campaign to prepare the district's application. A Gates-funded consultant held focus groups with teachers, staff, parents and business leaders. And she continued to meet individually with board members to discuss the evolving plan.
But if those members voiced doubts — over the $102 million in district money to be redirected toward the reforms, or the potential for hundreds of teachers to be fired annually for failing to improve — the public didn't hear about it.
It wasn't until Nov. 17, nine months after the process began, that the district held its first official Gates meeting. That night the board voted unanimously to accept the $100 million grant and all the changes that came with it.
Barbara A. Petersen, president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, called such methods "disturbing."
Under Florida law, board members must wait until an open meeting to discuss measures that are subject to a vote, such as expenditures or big policy changes. She said it prohibits "rapid-fire" meetings with individual members — the legal equivalent of holding a secret meeting.
"What I can say is this is questionable behavior," Petersen said. "We have a constitutional right to know."
Elia said the district went out of its way to talk about the plan with teachers, principals, parents and businesses, using their input.
"That's my public," Elia added. "It's not like everyone in Hillsborough County was told about it, but all the people involved in it, and certainly all of the employees would have received information and talked about it."
Now those people are doing their best to make the plan work.
Gayle Curtiss, a special-needs specialist at Gaither High School, worries that some principals and peer evaluators lack the training to rate the teachers of disabled students.
"It's a lot too much, too soon, too fast," she said.
Still, Curtiss believes teachers should be held to a high standard. And she thinks Elia did a good job of winning Gates money for changes that the state will likely mandate sooner or later.
"She's gone about this in probably the best imaginable way," Curtiss said.
Faye Cook, a teacher at Wilson Elementary and secretary of the teachers' union, has been impressed by Elia's steady focus on academics.
"I feel I can speak honestly with her," she said. "She has an empathy for teachers."
Cook, 58, worries about the pace of change and said teachers and staff are on edge. She believes Elia could do more to promote open discussion, recalling one instance when an administrator scolded her for answering a question from Elia too frankly.
But no one else could do the job better, Cook said. "I believe she's absolutely the right leader for this."
• • •
These days, Elia is sounding more and more like a statewide education leader.
"Let's face it, school accountability has been a rocky road in Florida and elsewhere," she told superintendents and union chiefs in Tampa. "At times it seemed like it was more about embarrassing schools than improving schools. I think we need to get beyond that."
She says she would consider any job — some on Gov. Rick Scott's transition team suggested she would make a good commissioner of education — but likes the one she has.
There will be plenty of work this spring — a perfect storm of political and fiscal challenges.
Hundreds of teachers' ratings are expected to drop under Hillsborough's new evaluation system, and many could face termination. State legislators will consider a bill to abolish tenure and mandate reforms Elia says shouldn't be rushed. And the federal stimulus will run out, pushing budgets to the brink.
Elia, a registered independent, says she chooses her words carefully when she ventures into political meetings. Sometimes when a hard-liner says things that make her wince, she holds her tongue.
It's part of the balancing act for a superintendent who finds herself in the spotlight, but isn't sure that's always the best place to be.
"I don't like politics to get in the way," Elia said. "I like people to work on the problems that face our kids in Florida, and help solve those problems."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.