Monday, January 22, 2018
Education

Remarks over open mike raise tempers on Hillsborough School Board

TAMPA — In the first Hillsborough County School Board meeting since the superintendent and the district's attorney were overheard making comments over a hot microphone, everyone had something to say.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia hadn't realized her microphone was on earlier this month when it picked up her remarks to the district's attorney about the need to balance critical comments from parents with those who support the schools.

Tuesday, she reiterated she meant exactly that.

But School Board members April Griffin and Susan Valdes — who the overheard conversation indicated were "in on" allowing an inappropriate use of public comments — took issue Tuesday with the recorded dialogue.

"My disappointment is that you and I have been working hard on our relationship," Griffin told Elia. "I just don't think that was good behavior modeled here."

Valdes asked school district attorney Thomas Gonzalez, the other part of the overheard discussion: "In on what? Can you enlighten us? Board members, I wonder if there are other instances in which other board members have been spoken about by our employees that we don't know about. Are there others?"

Gonzalez — who is not as clearly audible in the recording — said he has been concerned for a while that speakers at the beginning of the meeting sign up to address items on the agenda but then are allowed to discuss other matters instead.

That's why a discussion before the board July 16 about exceptional student education was so disjointed, he and Elia said. Parents with complaints spoke at the beginning of the meeting. Supporters of Grady Elementary, a school questioned by the parents, didn't speak until a general comment period four hours later.

While the three who spoke all worked at Grady, Elia said parents had also signed up to speak in support of the school. "I was frustrated over that because I knew the parents were sitting here, feeling that frustration, and I didn't think it was fair," she said.

But it didn't end there.

Gonzalez said he is troubled by Jose Colindres, a community organizer who has been meeting with and advising dissatisfied parents of ESE students.

Gonzalez said Colindres circulates through the lobby and organizes many of the public speakers in a coordinated effort that includes false information.

"And Mr. Colindres is an employee of a foundation whose sole funder is a declared candidate for this body," he said.

He was referring to the Brink Foundation — of which Colindres is chief operating officer — and founder Charles Brink. The foundation says it promotes social justice and equality.

During a break, Colindres said he and Brink have been involved in school issues long before Brink filed papers July 23 to run for Griffin's at-large seat.

"Advocating on behalf of students and parents is something our organization has been doing for a very long time," he said.

At one point, Griffin told Elia and Gonzalez that she thought she was owed an apology.

Elia said she could apologize that her remarks were overheard, but she would have said the same thing directly to Griffin. What's more, she said, she offered to sit with Griffin and listen to the tape together, but the meeting never happened.

Elia also pointed out that for months, Valdes has canceled their one-on-one meetings, which the superintendent holds with other board members.

"You're not interested in meeting with me," Elia said.

"I'll meet with you in a public setting," Valdes responded.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

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