Hillsborough schools chief Elia is lauded and lambasted in yearly review

Published Sept. 7, 2013

TAMPA — This year's evaluations of Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia range from glowing accolades to a complete lack of confidence.

School Board member Carol Kurdell did not write anything about Elia but gave her 40 points, the highest score.

Susan Valdes gave Elia a 9, the lowest possible score, and penned a page of scathing remarks about Elia's handling of a mentoring contract, an urban teaching program and the death of two special-needs students.

Chairwoman April Griffin, whose relationship with Elia has been especially rocky, had not yet submitted her report when the batch was posted online Friday afternoon.

Elia, who called from an airport on her way out of town, said she could not discuss the comments specifically but would take all of them to heart and meet with board members to talk about them.

"I think the use of evaluations is really powerful," she said. "The purpose of an evaluation is to settle on areas and have discussions on how we can improve. I think we can always get better."

It's been a difficult year for Elia, who earns $263,000, according to the most recent pay records available.

On the job since 2005, she has a high profile in the state and nation.

But at home she has incurred harsh criticism from board members, Griffin and Valdes in particular, who say she is dismissive to people who question her, on the board or in the community.

Cindy Stuart, the newest board member, alluded to a recent board meeting when the mother of a special-needs child stated her desire to keep the child in his neighborhood school. Elia, in response, spoke in detail about problems the staff had arranging meetings with the mother.

"This board member feels that this type of behavior and action is not productive in moving the district forward," Stuart wrote.

Members Doretha Edgecomb and Candy Olson, who are generally supportive of Elia, each gave her 39 points.

"Ms. Elia works very effectively to buffer the district from negative impacts of state decisions," Olson wrote, adding that she and the board "have considerable work to do on interpersonal and working relationships."

Edgecomb, who urged Elia in the past to focus attention on the high rate of suspensions among African-American male students, commended Elia for doing so and wrote that she looks forward to seeing more progress.

Hillsborough's high profile "is a tribute to your leadership" and that of the staff, Edgecomb wrote. She noted that "there are still both highs and lows in employee morale" but said it is clear Elia is trying to address those.

Stacy White, who has criticized Elia in the past in the areas of budget transparency and teacher morale, also gave her 39 points and mostly positive feedback. Elia is spending more time in his community, east Hillsborough, he wrote. She's sharing more information with the board.

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But White wrote that he still feels financial information is not open enough, a concern also raised by Stuart. And White wants teachers to have more autonomy.

Both Stuart and Olson recommended that Elia work toward better customer relations in an era when charter schools are competing for the district's students — and tax dollars.

"Although the district enjoys a well-earned national reputation, we need better communication with parents, teachers and others in the community," Olson wrote.

Valdes' remarks, which appear at the end of the six-page document, take Elia to task on a number of issues. Scholarships for graduates of the district's Urban Teaching Academy were hastily arranged. Elia unveiled a $4-million-a-year security plan at a news conference before the board could discuss it.

The board got confusing information about a looming bus purchase and Elia was overheard making remarks on a hot microphone that could be considered disrespectful to board members and the public.

"Due to these concerns that are not new, I have no confidence in your ability to manage the eighth largest school district in the nation and get this district to greatness," Valdes wrote.

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