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School Board chairwoman gives Hillsborough superintendent a blistering evaluation

TAMPA — The ongoing conflict between Hillsborough County School Board chairwoman April Griffin and superintendent MaryEllen Elia entered a new phase Wednesday as Griffin blasted Elia's job performance.

Griffin called her administration iron-fisted and autocratic. She characterized Elia's response to the deaths of two special-needs children as abysmal.

She also recounted her efforts to cultivate a good relationship with Elia, who enjoys a high profile after eight years leading one of the nation's largest districts.

But those efforts were one-sided, she wrote, and "I am at a point where I can no longer whitewash my feedback to you."

The board will vote Tuesday on whether to extend Elia's contract by another year in a job that pays more than $260,000.

Elia said Wednesday that she still hopes she and Griffin can work together. "We need to strive to be professional and work for what is best for the children in this community," she said.

Total points from the board's seven members add up to a satisfactory rating for Elia, enough to renew her contract. But individual scores vary widely, reflecting a polarized board.

Susan Valdes, long a critic, gave Elia a one in each of nine categories, for nine points total.

Griffin, who turned in her form well after the others, also gave Elia nine ones, but placed asterisks next to six, suggesting she would rather give zeroes.

In contrast, board member Carol Kurdell gave Elia 40 points but no comments.

Griffin wrote that the public should not have learned of the death of special-needs student Isabella Herrera nine months after the fact, at a news conference in 2012.

That news broke a week after another student, Jennifer Caballero, drowned in a pond behind her school.

Griffin contends Elia was wrong to transfer Joyce Wieland, former head of exceptional student education, to another executive job while front-line employees were demoted or fired.

"Although we have finally begun to address the issues identified by the various individuals and committees, the perception of a coverup by district personnel has created a major issue of trust from the public," Griffin wrote. "You fail to recognize this as an issue you need to address. Instead, you have a tendency to vilify and discredit anyone you perceive as a threat."

Griffin wrote that workers tell her they are fearful and browbeaten. She did not return calls for comment Wednesday.

Elia said she believes in the value of evaluations for teachers, principals and herself, but they should be part of an ongoing dialogue. And that has been difficult as both Griffin and Valdes have stopped meeting with her.

"The whole purpose of an evaluation is to look for constructive ways to make things better," Elia said. "There should be no big surprises. I meet a lot with a lot of the board members and get regular feedback."

Griffin's evaluation of Elia caps a summer of conflict between the two. Once a candidate for Hillsborough County Commission, Griffin was offended in July at a conversation between Elia and school district attorney Tom Gonzalez, captured on a microphone inadvertently left open.

Soon after, Griffin said she was withdrawing from the commission race to focus on the district and correct what she considers an imbalance of power between the board and administration.

This month, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Griffin wrote to state officials on behalf of a high school athlete deemed ineligible due to residency rules.

She used board stationery although neither the board nor Elia backed her position.

Griffin said she believed Elia's staff leaked the letter to discredit her.

Griffin has not said if she will run for re-election in 2014.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@tampabay.com.

School Board chairwoman gives Hillsborough superintendent a blistering evaluation 09/18/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 11:22pm]
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