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  1. The Education Gradebook

Carlton: She's gone — School Board can stop squabbling now

You might have thought that once certain members of the Hills- borough County School Board finally ran their archnemesis out of town on a rail, they would be ready to move on to the business of running actual schools.

You might be wrong.

At least this time their squabble with former superintendent MaryEllen Elia goes beyond style points and their long-held objections to Elia's fiercely autocratic way of getting things done.

Never mind her national reputation as a leader, or the fact that she was named Florida's superintendent of the year in December and was a finalist for the 2015 national award. The relationship between Elia and those board members had gone so toxic — with blame on both sides — that they voted 4-3 to oust her earlier this year.

Sadly, all Elia could manage to eke out for work after that was becoming New York state commissioner of education. That'll show her.

Anyway, with incoming superintendent Jeff Eakins at the helm, all that ugliness is behind them now, no?

Apparently, no.

Eakins says he recently discovered something surprising: Over the last four years, more than half the school district's $361 million reserve fund had been depleted in spending on salary changes and other costs.

So yes, this is bigger than management style.

Had spending kept at that pace, the fund could have almost shrunk to the legal minimum. And bonding agencies may not look happily upon such depletions.

Given the drama of certain School Board dealings in the Elia era, I guess it should surprise no one that a faction of board members blamed her administration for keeping them in the dark in this. (The anti-Elians, you could call them.) Lack of communication was long on their list of laments.

"This validates every reason why we pushed the yes button to fire MaryEllen," board member Cindy Stuart said, in case you have been missing all that drama.

They have a point on issues in communication. But there is also this: How is it that not one of the seven board members ever noticed those dropping numbers included in their yearly budgets, financial statements and audits?

And do the anti-Elians need to be reminded that she is, you know, no longer working here?

Of course Elia bit back with a statement, saying the board was "informed" and "voted on each budget" and that certain members "showed a peculiar lack of interest and lack of understanding of the larger financial issues."

What we do not need right about now is yet another display in new ways to point fingers. In the spirit of a new superintendent and a new school year, this could be a teachable moment.

Eakins seems to be sounding the right note with talk of trimming $75 million in spending. The idea of an independent outside auditor could help, too — as long as it doesn't turn into a witch-hunt for the Elia faithful in their midst. It was good to see a statement from April Griffin, one of Elia's most vocal critics on the board, at least talking of moving forward.

Here's a chance for the anti-Elians to concentrate on fixing a problem — and to be known for something beyond who they were against.

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