Despite critics, Hillsborough superintendent gets contract extension

Published Sept. 25, 2013

TAMPA — Hillsborough County schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia got a public lashing from her two harshest School Board critics before a majority voted Tuesday night to extend her contract another year.

With a satisfactory job performance rating, Elia, who earns more than $260,000 a year, was all but assured a contract extension. She got one by a 5-2 vote.

But given the severity of negative evaluations by board member Susan Valdes and Chairwoman April Griffin, Elia's supporters turned out at the meeting to show their allegiance.

"She is a national leader," said Kathleen Shanahan, a member of the Florida Board of Education.

"There is something good in each of us and that needs to be reinforced in the evaluation process," said retired principal Shirley Trujillo.

Lawyer Stephen Mitchell called Elia "a superstar."

Some members of Elia's staff wore the color pink, saying they did so as a show of solidarity.

The board was 12 hours into a full day of meetings when Griffin started the discussion by stating that she stands by her job evaluation that gave Elia a nine — the lowest rating possible.

She was pushed to file her report before she was ready, she said. When she did, she said she considered the way Elia has addressed her during their one-on-one meetings.

"Cussing, yelling, bullying," she said. "It's up to you to cooperate with the district's board, not just the ones who agree with you and the ones who vote with you, but all of them."

As she indicated in her written remarks, Griffin said Elia was slow to respond to problems in exceptional education that came to light with the deaths in 2012 of students Isabella Herrera and Jennifer Caballero.

"All of the awards and accolades cannot outweigh the deaths of two children while in our care," she said. "Bella and Jenny deserve more."

Valdes agreed with Griffin, saying she heard disturbing accounts of Elia intimidating staff.

"People are afraid to speak," she said. "People are afraid to have an open conversation and say what's on their mind. Schools should be happy places to come to because they are all about kids."

While some of the others acknowledged Elia must communicate more effectively with the School Board and community, member Candy Olson remarked that when rocks are thrown, "sometimes it's a small number of people throwing the same rocks over and over."

Griffin said no one on the board had the right to criticize any member's evaluation of Elia, and she said she could very well criticize the one that was handed in with scores but no comments.

While she did not mention member Carol Kurdell by name, Kurdell said it was clear she was being singled out.

"I stand by my evaluation. I believe we have a great leader in MaryEllen Elia, and she's proven that over and over," she said.

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She told Griffin, "You'd better look in the mirror when you call names."

"I do, every night," Griffin said.

"Well, you might look a little harder."

With 21 years on the board, Kurdell said, "I have never been more disappointed in the behavior of this board than I am now."

Griffin agreed that the conversation had degenerated and Elia, when asked to speak, didn't argue.

"I'm a firm believer in continuous improvement," said Elia, who has held the job since 2005 and enjoys a reputation for innovation and high standards. "But I'm not always perfect, and I don't always do things right."

While she wants a better relationship, she said, "the bickering and disagreement that occur, whether publicly or privately, do not move this district forward."

Elia said she focuses on students and school leadership. "I don't have the time or the inclination to deal with the distractions or the bickering," she said.

Member Doretha Edgecomb said she hopes the board moves past the discord of recent months to work together effectively.

"We are bigger than incidents and hurt feelings and disrespect," she said.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or