TAMPA — Hillsborough County's longtime school superintendent, MaryEllen Elia, was named 2015 Superintendent of the Year on Wednesday by her peers across the state.
"She's a superintendent's superintendent," said state Sen. Bill Montford, who also runs the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. "They all look to MaryEllen not just for advice, but for counsel, and there's a difference."
The honor, however, comes amid some uncertainty for Elia, who is in her 10th year on the job and facing a School Board that is deeply divided in its opinion of her work. She has been criticized for taking sides in the recent School Board election, supporting Dipa Shah, a lawyer who tried to unseat April Griffin.
Griffin, a frequent critic of Elia, won by a wide margin. She said Wednesday that community members she spoke to during the campaign disagree sharply over Elia's performance.
Asked Wednesday whether she was looking for work elsewhere, Elia laughed but did not say no. She said the media had started rumors she was job-searching.
Montford said superintendents of Elia's stature regularly receive inquiries from other districts. He rated Elia, who leads the nation's eighth-largest school district, as one of the top 10 district chief executives in the country.
"I wouldn't just say that if I didn't believe it," Montford said. "She's good."
The announcement came Wednesday morning at the Grand Hyatt in Tampa, where school boards and education executives from around the state are attending the annual conference of the Florida School Boards Association.
Former superintendent Earl Lennard, who attended the announcement, said he left Hillsborough schools in good hands.
"The district has prospered," said Lennard, the state's 2003 Superintendent of the Year. "Performance levels are at the highest, growth has returned and they are handling it. MaryEllen is extraordinarily deserving of Superintendent of the Year."
Even School Board Chairwoman Susan Valdes, who has frequently and publicly sparred with Elia, acknowledged the superintendent's strong reputation and hard work for the district.
"It's good that her peers recognize the things that she is trying to do and has accomplished," Valdes said, adding that she hopes to put any disputes in the past. "I want to really move forward and not continually rehash."
Elia said she didn't know she was getting the honor until she arrived at the hotel, where friend and nationally known education advocate Kati Haycock was scheduled to speak.
"When I walked in this morning and my husband was at the meeting, I knew something was up," Elia said, smiling.
She refused to take full credit for the recognition.
"You know this is not something that one person earns," Elia said. "We have an excellent team of people in Hillsborough. They make things happen every day."
She said she was proud that the district's work in increasing student achievement would be honored.
"Every year, as the ante rises and we face the challenges at every one of our schools … the reality is this takes a team and everyone must remain focused," Elia said. "I know they are all there."
In addition to Valdes and Griffin, board member Cindy Stuart has clashed with Elia in recent months. Of the four remaining board members, two are loyal to Elia and the others are new to the board, including one who received campaign support from community organizers hostile to Elia.
Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] Follow @JeffSolochek.