The Hillsborough County School Board made a reckless decision Tuesday night in terminating superintendent MaryEllen Elia. This was a politically motivated decision that had nothing to do with Elia's performance, student performance or public confidence in her leadership. It had everything to do with perceived slights and petty conflicts irritating four board members. Now the firing squad will have to find a capable replacement even as it struggles to explain why it paid $1.1 million to oust Florida's superintendent of the year.
The 4-3 vote by the seven-member board capped a long campaign by board members Susan Valdes and April Griffin to show Elia the door. The pair had long complained that Elia did not show them enough respect — a silly drama that over the past year took on new proportions.
Valdes and Griffin offered no legitimate reason Tuesday for firing Elia. Valdes claimed that Elia wasn't the issue, a statement as ridiculous as it was dishonest. Griffin went on a rant about the South Tampa crowd controlling Tampa politics. Board member Sally Harris, in office only weeks, sounded clueless in her brief remarks, which ended on this note: "I work for the children."
It was an embarrassing show by the governing board of the nation's eighth-largest school system. Cindy Stuart was the only board member who at least gave a serious rationale for firing Elia, saying the relationship had broken down and it was time for a change. It was a weak and self-serving argument that put all the blame on Elia for the two-way communication problems, but at least it was a straightforward explanation.
Elia had her faults, but she was an accomplished superintendent highly regarded by her peers who guided the district through the boom and bust cycles of growth and the economic recession. A finalist this year for national superintendent of the year, she has been a leading voice statewide and nationally on teacher training, improved academic performance and local control. She also was a reliable partner in local job-development efforts, which is one reason that bay area political and business leaders rushed in the past week to her defense. The board majority not only fired a respected civic leader, they failed to appreciate how the broader community has a significant stake in the success and smooth operation of the school system.
The vote leaves the district without a chief executive, leaves the board more divided than before, and leaves taxpayers more than $1 million in the hole. It also will foster a new culture of intimidation in the district as Valdes and Griffin see the extent that they can push a petty agenda. That certainly won't help attract the best talent in what needs to be a national search for Elia's successor.
Among the pressing issues facing the Hillsborough district that will require strong leadership from a new superintendent: fixing its teacher mentoring program, improving the transportation department and addressing deficiencies in special-needs education.
Elia deserved a more dignified exit, but this power play should not overshadow her contributions to Hillsborough and the bay area. And though it didn't save Elia's job, the outpouring of support from the political and business community was appropriate. It made the public more aware of the school system's larger role in society — and of the importance of School Board elections.