Sunday, April 22, 2018
Education

Tape catches Hillsborough schools superintendent, district's attorney criticizing Board members

TAMPA — Apparently unaware a microphone was on, the Hillsborough County Public Schools superintendent shared thoughts with the school district's attorney during a break in the July 16 School Board meeting.

Staff who want to rebut parent complaints about school practices should speak during the part of the meeting when parents speak, MaryEllen Elia said. The district is being beaten up, she said.

And she agreed, twice, when attorney Tom Gonzalez suggested two board members are "in on it."

What they were "in on" is not entirely clear. Gonzalez said Monday that he has long been concerned that speakers sign up to discuss items on the agenda and chairwoman April Griffin lets them veer off topic.

At issue at the meeting was exceptional-student education. Several parents said students are not included enough with their nondisabled peers. A student with cerebral palsy also spoke, using an adaptive device.

After the parents left, 82 minutes into the recorded meeting, Elia told Gonzalez, "I have to start getting some people here at every one of the preboard things, so it's got to be at the beginning, speaking to an agenda item."

Gonzalez mentioned "Susan," meaning board member Susan Valdes, who had asked about a lawsuit that community organizer Jose Colindres signed up to discuss. But Colindres, who has been advising the ESE parents, talked about ESE instead, and Griffin allowed him to do so.

"I cannot believe the chair isn't in on all that (expletive)," Gonzalez said during his side conversation with Elia.

"I know," Elia said.

"They're both in on it," Gonzalez said.

"I know," Elia said. "I can't do anything about it, but I can make sure I got a balance. That's the problem, all I've got is people beating us up."

Hearing the recording on Monday, Griffin said: "I am really shocked. … I'm not in on anything."

She said she and Elia have worked to repair a relationship that was not always congenial, and the two agreed to speak directly if one of them had a concern.

The recording also makes it clear Elia wanted to be sure the schools — Grady Elementary in particular — were not portrayed unfairly.

Three Grady employees, including the principal, praised the school and its ESE services during public comments at the end of the meeting, three hours after the parents spoke.

Griffin said Grady staff were aware their school would be criticized. They wanted to defend the school, and Griffin was fine with that. "I am all about making sure that everybody's voice is heard," she said.

Elia said Monday that she did not intend to discourage anyone from speaking and no one should infer that from her remarks. In fact, administrators from the district met with all the parents after they spoke.

"I think the issue is that when we have individuals come and they are providing us with their experience and beliefs, we want to have balance," she said. Of Griffin, she said, "Our board chair is very interested in making sure that everybody has the opportunity to speak."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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