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A rising Hillsborough school leader battles claims of gender, racial bias

The district’s human resources office sided with Marcos Murillo. But the matter is far from resolved.
Marcos Murillo, the chief of middle schools for Hillsborough County Public Schools, says he is hurt by allegations that he mistreated and discriminated against four Black administrators who work for him. "That's not me," he said. "Why?"
Marcos Murillo, the chief of middle schools for Hillsborough County Public Schools, says he is hurt by allegations that he mistreated and discriminated against four Black administrators who work for him. "That's not me," he said. "Why?" [ Hillsborough County Public Schools ]
Published May 31

Four principals and assistant principals in the Hillsborough County public schools have accused one of their bosses of treatment that suggests gender and racial bias in a complaint that sparked a months-long investigation.

The district Office of Professional Standards sided on April 9 with 45-year-old Chief of Middle Schools Marcos Murillo, finding no reason to take action and praising his leadership. In her letter, executive officer Rebecca Kaskeski noted three of the four administrators got promotions while they were working for Murillo or shortly after.

Superintendent Addison Davis said he does not interfere with human resources, the department over professional standards. But he also said the matter is not closed. And, in an email on May 19, he cautioned School Board members against saying anything about it.

Related: Most Hillsborough parents oppose mandatory school masks this fall

The Tampa Organization of Black Affairs, a nonpartisan community organization, is involved. And there have been suggestions, including by a School Board member, that the district enlist an outside investigator, as happened after a sexual harassment case in Sarasota County. That case led to the forced resignation of the superintendent.

The complainants, in a February letter to Davis, wrote that some did not know each other until recently. “We feel that we have been treated unfairly by Mr. Murillo because of our gender and race,” their letter said.

Murillo said he was shocked by the allegations and baffled that the matter is still not concluded. “It’s very hurtful,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “That’s not me. Why?”

Some wonder if politics are mixed up in a campaign against Murillo, who is rumored to be up for a promotion. “People have talked about him as, maybe, the chief of schools,” said Dante Jones, principal of Mann Middle School and president of the Hillsborough Association of School Administrators. “His name is definitely spoken in very high regard.”

Regardless of its motivation, the case poses questions beyond Murillo’s record. As issues of racial equity are examined in all segments of society, it raises the specter of double standards experienced by Black women.

When they speak or act decisively, they can be labeled as angry, at least one of the administrators said in her complaint. But when advancing through a large school system, another said, they are presumed to be useful at managing minority students’ behavior.

Murillo, who came to the district as a middle school teacher in 1999, was named in 2014 as an area director in the southeastern part of the county. That job was elevated in 2016 to area superintendent, and Murillo was moved to the northwest suburbs. When Davis arrived in 2020, he reorganized the leadership system and made Murillo his Chief of Middle Schools.

Hillsborough County School Board Chair Lynn Gray said an outside investigation might be warranted regarding allegations against Marcos Murillo, the school district's chief of middle schools.
Hillsborough County School Board Chair Lynn Gray said an outside investigation might be warranted regarding allegations against Marcos Murillo, the school district's chief of middle schools. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
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Murillo told the Times, “I take pride in building leaders and making them better.” Having arrived in Tampa from his home in Puerto Rico with limited English skills, he said, “I understand hard work. I understand pressure. And I’ve been humbled by my experience.” He referred a reporter to other principals of color who, when contacted, said Murillo challenges his employees but provides ample assistance and treats them cordially.

“He has pushed me to do great things for my school and he has been supportive of me doing those things,” said Henrissa Berry, a first-time principal at Young Middle. “I’m a go-getter, so I like to challenge myself and hold myself accountable. I don’t have a problem when people above me hold me accountable either.”

Related: Tampa Bay students lost ground during the pandemic, mostly in math

Jones said, “I have seen him, multiple times, come through and ask how we’re doing and what are your needs and is there anything I can take off your plate. That was his stance at all times. Nobody has ever spoken ill of him to me.”

The complaints by Tiatasha Brown, Colleen Carr, Dionne Davis and Jacqueline Enis — who did not speak with the Times — cover a variety of situations, some in a couple of paragraphs and others over dozens of pages.

Brown, one-time leader of Middleton High and now the principal at Giunta Middle, described a time when Murillo apparently took offense because she did not postpone a teacher observation to meet with him during his unannounced visit to Shields Middle School. Dionne Davis, a Turkey Creek Middle School assistant principal, wrote that Murillo treated her and her principal harshly when the school was delayed completing master class schedules.

Carr, now Shields’ principal, clashed with staff including two assistant principals. By her account, Murillo undermined her by allowing the assistant principals to spread “false narratives” and letting staff send information directly to him, bypassing chain of command. She said Murillo called her unprofessional and harsh.

“As I processed this information,” Carr wrote, “I became concerned that harsh and unprofessional appear to be stereotypes that society labels black women who are in position of authority.”

Enis’s situation raises a different set of issues, and suggestions of misconduct by Farnell Middle School Principal Tim Binder.

Enis, now assistant principal at Turner-Bartels K-8, said Binder made her feel uncomfortable when she worked under him at Farnell by chatting about topics that were inappropriate, including the sexual exploits of colleagues. She found him overly friendly in after-hours texts, which she saved and submitted as exhibits. She said he made jokes, even after she protested, that a security employee was her “boyfriend.”

Enis submitted a written complaint about Binder to Murillo in early 2019. She alleges that, rather than informing her of action taken, area supervisors allowed her to continue working for Binder — who, by her description, continued to make her uncomfortable.

When asked about the matter in his district interview, Murillo said Binder was “addressed accordingly, as advised by the professional standards office.” When asked if anyone spoke to Enis about a resolution, Murillo said there were many conversations.

According to the chronology offered by Enis, Binder landed the Farnell principal’s position after serving as acting principal. Enis had wanted to apply for the job, but said it was wired for Binder. As Murillo explained it, the superintendent and chief of schools at the time wanted Binder in that job. So he complied.

As for her interaction with Murillo: Enis says in her complaint that he praised her to her face and gave her positive evaluations. But she believes he put her down behind her back as she tried to advance. Murillo said he always respected Enis professionally and was surprised she would think otherwise.

Enis’s complaint said Murillo encouraged her to take jobs at high-minority schools to advance her career. “This is a pattern that perpetuates racism and shows that Mr. Murillo believes that I am good and savvy enough to ‘clean up’ a school for another race of people,” she wrote. “But because I am a black woman, I am not good enough to be promoted as principal of a school. There is a mindset of black administrators cleaning up schools and moving from school to school and never being promoted. If they question it, they are retaliated against or blackballed.”

Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis sent School Board members an email asking them not to comment on the Murillo case.
Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis sent School Board members an email asking them not to comment on the Murillo case. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Murillo’s supporters acknowledged such typecasting exists. Black male administrators can also find themselves on predictable career paths, said Otis Kitchen, the principal of Town ‘N Country Elementary. Many are steered into the role of assistant principal for administration, which focuses more on discipline than academics.

Kitchen said Murillo, who promoted him from assistant principal, made a conscious effort to help him develop as more of an instructional leader. “With my experiences, I can honestly say he has a laser focus on ensuring positive student achievement,” Kitchen said. “And with that come expectations that are extremely high. He’s going to hold you accountable. But by no means has he ever ridiculed me or been harsh in a way to be borderline abusive.”

Enis, in her complaint, said Murillo told her he would not name a black principal to Farnell. When the investigator asked about that statement, Murillo said, “I have never said that. I will never say that in my career.”

She described a time at Webb Middle when Murillo taped a sanitary napkin, as a prank, to a male employee’s office door. Murillo told the investigator he had no memory of that incident.

While there is great detail in the exhibits the women submitted, the 35-page investigative report shows the interviews hit a number of dead ends. Again and again, the investigator asked the four administrators for examples and specifics. In response, they referred to their written statements.

There were questions about why the four decided to file complaints, whose idea it was and who did the writing. There were multiple questions about the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs, and its role. The investigator asked Enis if anyone took a picture of the sanitary napkin on the door.

The Office of Professional Standards found nothing to substantiate a pattern of unfair treatment, and Kaskeski, the executive officer, praised the way Murillo had performed throughout his career. “You have demonstrated a pattern of holding people accountable for their performance and being direct in your expectations,” she wrote in a letter.

It is clear from the records that the Black affairs organization remains involved. Emails between executive board member James Ransom and School Board Chair Lynn Gray show the group reached out to the entire board after news broke about budget cuts that might cost many assistant principals their jobs. The goal was to protect the four women from being laid off with budget cuts used as a pretext.

Ransom would not comment for publication. Gray, speaking before Davis’s email asking board members not to comment, said she would support an outside investigation, such as the one in Sarasota. “I think that’s where we’re at,” she said. “I think it’s an outside investigation.”

She told Ransom, in an email, that she wants to keep an open mind about Murillo. But she also said she has observed three of the complainants on the job and “I have held them in high regard.”