It's easy to understand the wide swings in Hillsborough County Schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia's latest job review, because two School Board members are clueless about what an evaluation is all about. In most places, performance reviews serve a two-fold purpose — to give bosses a measure of the staff and employees a sense of their strengths and weaknesses. But School Board members April Griffin and Susan Valdes used Elia's review this year to whine, posture and settle old scores. It was self-serving and useless for the organization and its 200,000 students.
Griffin and Valdes awarded Elia a single point — on a sliding scale from one to five, with five being the highest — across nine separate categories, from her leadership and management skills to her ethics. The nine-point total was one-fourth what a majority of the seven-member board gave the superintendent. Even first-term Cindy Stuart, elected last year on a reformist agenda, awarded Elia 29 points and was constructive in her criticism. She also was fair in recognizing where Elia improved and clear about her expectations.
Griffin and Valdes took a much different approach. Griffin, the board chair, noted that were it possible, she would have given Elia zeros in most categories. In her written comments, Griffin bemoaned injustices and traits dating back a decade, nearly all of which she has repeated over and over, most involving turf and the degree of deference the chairwoman expects from the staff. Valdes' comments were barely comprehensible. Neither reflected well on the competency of a board overseeing the nation's eighth-largest school system.
Elia has her faults. She is often too defensive and prone at times to offer spin about mistakes instead of acknowledging them. She also can hide behind the bureaucracy when her policies are called into question. But Elia also has considerable strengths that serve the school system well. She's championed more rigorous academics. She has extended programs to poor and struggling campuses. Her budgeting enabled Hillsborough to endure the recession without laying off teachers. A report this month showed Hillsborough, the state's third-largest district, had Florida's highest number of National Merit Scholar semifinalists. Elia has been vocal and visible at the state level in separating higher standards from educational gimmicks. Something is working at the top.
The shame is that Griffin and Valdes chose to indulge their egos at the worst possible time, as the district is working through several key reforms, from how to evaluate and train teachers to make them more effective to how to implement an evolving model to make Florida's schools more competitive with other states.
The board will discuss Elia's evaluation Tuesday. It should use the opportunity to move beyond hurt feelings and engage in a serious discussion of the challenges the board and the superintendent face together.