There's nothing like an election to bring an exacting eye to the Hillsborough County School Board. The school district this week released the board's annual job evaluation of superintendent MaryEllen Elia. It was appropriate that six of the seven board members recognized that Elia needs to do a better job managing the school bureaucracy and a host of academic challenges. But why wasn't this concern expressed publicly over the past year, and why is it coming now only after a majority of the board members are feeling the heat from reform-minded opponents in Tuesday's election?
Elia earned another "above satisfactory" ranking from the board, even as her scores from individual members dropped 20 points from last year. It would not have been difficult for the board to rationalize the drop, given the problems with instituting the new teacher evaluation system and several other high-profile setbacks. But board members barely uttered a peep this year when a scholarship program for inner-city students nearly fell through the cracks, or when the district was embarrassed by the athletics scandal at Armwood High School. Elia should be held accountable for those mistakes, but the board also had an obligation to speak out more forcefully at the time.
The School Board elections this year are de facto referenda on Elia's relationship with the board, as the challengers paint the incumbents — Susan Valdes, Jack Lamb, Doretha Edgecomb and Carol Kurdell — as either out-of-touch politicians or mouthpieces for the administration. It is not surprising, then, that Elia's biggest drop in support came from three of the four members up for re-election Tuesday; the fourth — Lamb — pulled back his support, too, but not as dramatically. And while the board dismissed many of the problems this year as "communication" lapses, all but one board member — Valdes — gave Elia the exact same marks for her communications savvy as last year.
Worse, none of the three who distanced themselves from Elia the most — Valdes, Edgecomb and Kurdell, all of whom the Tampa Bay Times recommended in their races — bothered to offer a written summary of their concerns with Elia's performance. The whole purpose of job reviews is to give employees a sense of where and how they need to improve. This is a critical time for the district, both financially and academically, and the School Board has an obligation to set clear expectations for the superintendent. This evaluation looks more like a fresh set of clothes for board members in the run-up to elections than a fair appraisal of Elia's job performance. She deserved a more thorough and candid evaluation based on her work, not on the state of their election campaigns.