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Frustration with superintendent MaryEllen Elia bubbled over

The board terminated Elia’s contract with a 4-3 vote last week. Although Elia had many supporters, some parents and educators criticized her management style and welcomed her dismissal. Board members were careful not to say anything defamatory about Elia’s performance.
The board terminated Elia’s contract with a 4-3 vote last week. Although Elia had many supporters, some parents and educators criticized her management style and welcomed her dismissal. Board members were careful not to say anything defamatory about Elia’s performance.
Published Jan. 26, 2015

TAMPA — Surrounded by red-wearing supporters of Hillsborough County school superintendent MaryEllen Elia, Michael Pheneger wondered Tuesday night if School Board members would have the votes to fire her.

"Apparently they did," said Pheneger of the American Civil Liberties Union. His reaction: "I hope her departure leads to more openness in the way the system runs."

In political and business circles, the reaction to the board's 4-3 vote to terminate Elia's contract has been overwhelmingly negative. The prevailing wisdom is that Elia is a good school leader with the title of state Superintendent of the Year to prove it, that a board majority was being petty, and that the move was rash, costing taxpayers more than $1 million to break her contract.

But some parents blamed Elia for the struggles schools have in serving special-needs children. "I am actually happy," said Amanda Taylor, who was so frustrated about her daughter's situation that she called Elia "EVILia" in a Facebook campaign.

Civil rights leaders including Pheneger, concerned about disproportionate numbers of black students being disciplined, were looking for a more aggressive response to the problem instead of the sluggish task force effort now under way.

Elia's firing was also welcomed by some former employees.

"I don't wish harm or bad on anyone," said George Olmo, who was fired in 2012 for circulating a candidate petition in support of board member Susan Valdes, a violation of district policy. "I think it's karma. What goes around comes around."

Olmo used the word "relieved," as did former administrator and teacher Jennifer Morley, now a law student and a member of the minority discipline task force.

Morley took offense at what she called "sexist" characterizations of the all-female board. And she said those who voted to fire Elia — Valdes, Sally Harris, April Griffin and Cindy Stuart — are taking criticism from people who do not know all the facts.

"Many people don't know about the issues that were brought to the board members," Morley said. "Not everything is public. People are afraid of retaliation."

Careful criticism

The board members, before and after Tuesday's vote, chose their words carefully under board attorney Jim Porter's advice to avoid saying anything that could be taken as defamatory. Most read from prepared statements before they cast their votes, something observers found off-putting after more than 70 audience members spoke, mostly in favor of Elia.

"Why have a hearing if you've already decided what you are going to say?" asked Jan Platt, who served on the Tampa City Council and the Hillsborough County Commission. "It makes a mockery of the hearing."

Things would have been different if the board tried to fire Elia for cause.

But to do that, according to her contract, they would have needed "good and just cause," which is a high legal standard, Porter said. Elia's contract also specified she could not be fired "arbitrarily or capriciously."

Anonymous voices

In the months leading up to the vote, before they were advised to keep quiet, some board members said they were frustrated that parents and employees came to them with complaints, often anonymously.

Stuart, at a town hall meeting at Chamberlain High School in December, described a workforce so cowed that when she visited a school, the principal was afraid to report that the Wi-Fi wasn't working.

"Don't tell anyone — please don't tell anyone because I'll get in trouble," she said the principal begged her. Calling from her car, Stuart pretended she noticed the malfunction while in the media center. "I have to make up stories for why the Wi-Fi is not working to protect the principal," she said. "It's ridiculous."

The members' written evaluations of Elia over the past three years shed more light on their points of disagreement. Valdes accused Elia of creating a workplace culture of fear and bullying, and failing to pay enough attention to minorities, including Hispanics.

Stuart criticized Elia's interaction with the board, saying she failed to include them in events such as a teacher appreciation video and the governor's visit.

She found fault with the district's Office of Professional Standards, at one point insisting on an investigation after a teacher was fired. Stuart also took issue with the way Elia's staff presented budgets and purchasing proposals to the board and public.

Griffin wrote at length about a management style that made employees feel "browbeaten" and Elia's failure to notify the board and public after 7-year-old Isabella Herrera stopped breathing during a school bus ride and later died. In a court deposition, Elia said she did not know about the tragedy and the full circumstances until the family filed a lawsuit.

Rift too wide

Taken together, the comments paint a picture of a faction of the board that felt frozen out by Elia and her staff.

Stephen Hegarty, spokesman for the district, took issue with some of these allegations. Responding to Valdes' statement about minorities, he pointed out that Elia's contract calls for her to improve academic performance among minority students, and she has been lauded for meeting those goals. "Her record speaks for itself," he said.

He also cautioned against believing every story told by a dissatisfied parent or employee. "People can say anything at board meetings," he said. "It is not always completely accurate. But it certainly leaves an impression with board members and the public."

Harris, who cast the swing vote, is too new to have a record with Elia. But, in an interview with Tampa Bay Times columnist Sue Carlton, Harris said she voted for the firing because she felt the relationship between Elia and the board was irretrievably broken.

Whatever their reasons, Platt said, not articulating them clearly, coupled with the fact that members were firing the state's top superintendent, could be disastrous for their political careers. "I don't think they have a prayer, not a chance of being re-elected after this," she said.

Claudia Roberts, an advocate for students with special needs, said she has mixed feelings. She's had good experiences with Elia, she said. But she appreciates that there were people in the community — including some parents of special-needs students — who were calling for a change.

Ultimately, she said, "if a message that's coming out of this is that special education children make a difference, then I would have to say it's a good thing."

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

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