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  1. The Education Gradebook

Between consulting jobs and charters, couple's role in Hillsborough schools expands

Mel, left, and Rod Jurado of Temple Terrace own the Profitable Group.
Mel, left, and Rod Jurado of Temple Terrace own the Profitable Group.
Published Nov. 27, 2015

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District has paid more than $35,000 to a consulting firm whose owner also is on track to oversee seven charter schools.

While the two developments are unrelated, they illustrate new directions the district has quietly taken under superintendent Jeff Eakins' leadership — including a thaw in what once was an icy relationship with for-profit charter school operators.

Rod and Mel Jurado's consulting firm, the Profitable Group, recently helped the School Board update its strategic plan. It led board retreats in Ocala and Brooksville, and meetings with senior staff.

And Mel Jurado designed a new evaluation for the superintendent, to replace the instrument used for former school leader MaryEllen Elia.

Work related to a retreat Nov. 13 will add another $8,000 to the tab, Rod Jurado told the Tampa Bay Times.

There was no public vote on these arrangements. They weren't listed in board agendas, as customarily happens when the district spends more than $10,000. That's because the work was approved piecemeal, with officials saying they never anticipated that the firm's work for the district would be ongoing.

The biggest expenditure — $11,500 to construct the new superintendent evaluation — didn't appear on the agenda until after the work was complete, and without naming the consultant.

The board did vote on Oct. 13 to allow a charter organization that Rod Jurado chairs to launch four new tax-funded, privately managed schools in addition to three that are already open — Henderson Hammock, Winthrop and Woodmont.

Speaking of the two situations, Jurado said, "they're parallel, but they're not connected."

The Jurados, who live in Temple Terrace, have operated their consulting firm for more than 20 years. They contract with government agencies and corporations, teaching them how to improve morale and productivity with better organizational practices.

Past clients include the Hills­borough County Property Appraiser's Office and the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Separately, Mel Jurado ran the Florida Office of Early Learning for Gov. Rick Scott for a little more than a year.

Rod Jurado is a former trustee for Hillsborough Community College. Since 2013, he has chaired a local board that oversees Hillsborough schools managed by the Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA.

Relations were rocky under Elia's leadership. In 2014, during a dispute about governance, Elia threatened to terminate the schools' charters. Rod Jurado called her move a "hostile" ploy "to deflect interest away from the fact that the district's schools performed so abysmally."

But the two sides worked out their differences. Oversight of the charters was consolidated under a board that also includes local religious leader Valora Cole, accountant Seema Jain and state Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa.

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Then Elia's firing opened a new door.

School officials and Jurado began to talk, and Eakins spoke briefly with Charter Schools USA owner Jonathan Hage during an introductory meeting.

Both sides realized that, even in high-growth areas, the state was unlikely to build schools. The charter group collaborated with the district on where to open schools, rather than walking in with a finished application.

The School Board — which in previous years painted charter schools as an unwelcome competitor — softened its attitude.

"If we're strategic about this, I think we can have success on both sides," board member Cindy Stuart said at the Oct. 13 meeting when the four schools were approved. Her colleagues lined up to agree.

The Jurados' consulting jobs with the district happened around the same time, as the new Eakins administration looked for help in mending the rifts that surrounded Elia's ouster.

Work on a new strategic plan began at the April board retreat, facilitated by the Jurados. Eakins liked what he saw and wanted to extend it to staff, so the two groups would be aligned.

More gatherings were held in July, August, September, October and on Nov. 13. Topics included attitude, appropriate behavior, communication, problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills that were needed to bring the district's large workforce together.

While it might appear that the couple are amassing power, Rod Jurado pointed out that their roles, in some ways, are contradictory.

"As a charter school person," he asked, "if I really wanted the (enrollment) situation to get better, would I help the quote, unquote enemy?"

Either way, he stands to serve about 8,000 students if the seven schools grow to projections.

Addressing the board in October, Jurado said, "we want to be partners with you in having charter schools be part of the public school system."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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