Hillsborough Superintendent Elia is star in education circles, but on hot seat at home

MaryEllen Elia faces a vote on Tuesday in which the School Board could decide to fire her. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
MaryEllen Elia faces a vote on Tuesday in which the School Board could decide to fire her. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Published Dec. 15, 2015

TAMPA — Roberta Moore got worried when the Hillsborough County School District wanted to send her 10-year-old son with Down syndrome to a program farther from home. So she pleaded his case, twice, to the School Board in the summer of 2013.

With the auditorium packed and the meeting televised, superintendent MaryEllen Elia defended her staff. She described in great detail the phone calls back and forth, how they tried to set up a meeting with Moore and were poised to resolve the issue.

But, in publicly rebutting a parent, Elia came across to some as defensive and heavy-handed. "This type of behavior and action is not productive in moving the district forward," board member Cindy Stuart wrote in her yearly evaluation of Elia.

The exchange also offended other parents of special-needs children who know Moore. And Moore contends that part of the statement was untrue.

Slights like that, accumulating over a decade, are one explanation for a seemingly implausible paradox: One of the nation's most decorated superintendents could lose her job in a board vote Tuesday.

Supporters call Elia, 66, brilliant, and even her detractors acknowledge she works harder than people half her age. Emails to the district in recent days have been admiring of Elia and insulting to the elected board. And many of her fans, from the proud mother of a recent Middleton High School graduate to the mayor of Tampa, have risen to her defense.

But scattered among the neighborhoods of Hillsborough are parents who did not get services they needed for their children, employees who felt devalued on the job, and people who saw Elia's ungracious side.

"When you run a big, urban district, over the period of time you make a lot of tough decisions," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.

"And over a long period of time, you have pockets of individuals who are not satisfied."

The politics are treacherous, Blanton said. More and more, as in Congress and the Legislature, "people are not as willing to forgive and forget."

Now Elia will learn if she can be forgiven for her part in conflicts with some members of her board, which will consider buying out her three-year contract for a sum that comes to $1.1 million in salary, benefits and bonuses.

Assuming there is a vote and she survives it, she'll then decide if she can forgive, or if it's time to move on.

"She won't even have to look for a job," said state Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who leads the state superintendents association.

"Those offers will come to her."

• • •

On a Monday in September, Elia strode to the podium at the Tampa Airport Marriott, organizing her remarks to the Florida Board of Education.

Chatter hushed, all eyes focused on Elia as she listed the myriad challenges students and teachers face preparing for new state tests in the spring.

"There is not enough time to teach students keyboarding and computer skills, which are far different from texting skills," she said.

Listeners nodded. Some took copious notes.

Outside the glare of Hillsborough politics, Elia commands attention in education policy circles. Frequently called upon to testify before lawmakers, she has the trust of decision-makers around the state and nation.

"She is one of the best superintendents in the country who has that rare quality of being very knowledgeable about education policy that works in the classroom," said Roberto Martinez, a Coral Gables lawyer who served on the state Board of Education for eight years. "She is honest, and we trusted her judgment and advice."

Senate Education Committee chairman John Legg, who represents parts of Hillsborough, said leaders are impressed by Elia's innovation and ability to manage a large, diverse district even through tough economic times.

"She has been able to navigate the waters of a changing education culture," he said.

Her clout in turn helps the district, supporters say.

"We have one of the few superintendents in Florida who can say something and be heard by the Legislature and the governor," former board member Candy Olson said.

In Hillsborough, Elia follows a succession of male school leaders who, like her, stayed well beyond the usual tenure of two to five years.

Beginning as a reading specialist in Plant High School, Elia climbed to high-profile district positions, opening magnet schools and, as facilities chief, getting new schools on the ground in the go-go growth years before the recession.

Her early accomplishments as superintendent are widely known. Under her leadership, Hillsborough weathered the economic slump without teacher layoffs, though it was later revealed that the transportation system suffered from underinvestment. She adhered strictly to the state's class size limits as other districts followed them haphazardly.

She helped secure a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for teacher mentoring and evaluations, cementing her spot on the national stage.

The board she reported to was largely compliant, with questions most often coming from members Susan Valdes and April Griffin.

Things changed in 2012 when two special-needs children died accidentally after being in the care of district employees. One family filed a federal lawsuit. That was the first time most board members learned about the death, and they were aghast. There was talk of a coverup. Disabled-rights activists and others with grievances against the district protested outside board meetings with signs.

In December 2012, the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., shocked the nation. And, while most employees were enjoying the winter break, Elia got to work on a new security plan.

She returned in January, held a news conference and tried to get approval to put a trained, armed security officer in every elementary school. Board members voted the plan down, concerned about the $4 million annual cost and miffed that Elia hadn't consulted them beforehand. Elia remarked that it wasn't really a defeat, that she had intended the plan as a conversation starter.

But she didn't give up.

Insisting that children and school employees needed protection, she brought the matter back months later. Elementary school principals — all 144, by some accounts — signed a letter of support. Dozens came to testify at a board meeting.

The plan, this time to be phased in over four years, was approved, 4-3, in December 2013. Advantage Elia.

That year, Valdes and Griffin gave her the lowest possible ratings on her evaluation.

• • •

The superintendent calls meetings with employees as early as 5:45 a.m. In the evening she'll travel to the most remote corners of the massive district to explain the Florida Standards to anxious parents. Go to a Saturday session of Parent University and chances are you'll find Elia there, too.

Her mantra: "If you tell me about it, it's my problem. If you don't tell me, it's your problem."

She can be blunt — too blunt, some say. Her relationships with Stuart, Griffin and Valdes are so scarred that board attorney Jim Porter accompanies the members in their regular one-on-one meetings with Elia.

Parent Dan Martucci said he got a bad impression when he tried to learn why his son was not accepted into the International Baccalaureate program at Walker Middle School. Unable to get a clear explanation of the lottery system from other school officials, he met with Elia.

He remarked, in exasperation, that she earned too much money to have to explain the process to a parent. "She was infuriated," said Martucci, who now sends his kids to private school. "Her lips quivered. She had a look in her eye."

The impression stuck, he said, and he tells the story often.

Over the years, Elia also got on the wrong side of Charles Brink, a beverage industry millionaire who funds a charitable foundation. Increasingly, the Brink Foundation and its chief operating officer, Jose Colindres, spend their energies on advocating for and organizing dissatisfied parents.

And Elia has had more than one falling-out with Patrick Manteiga, publisher of the trilingual La Gaceta newspaper. Manteiga managed Griffin's re-election campaign in November, and he has written scathing columns calling for Elia's removal.

While board members were cautious with their statements last week, at their attorney's advice, those who have been critical of Elia in the past contend she sets a tone of intimidation that makes employees fearful. They have said she is not responsive enough to the board.

Four times in 2014, Griffin and Valdes hosted town hall meetings for bus employees and others who had concerns about the district. Invariably, talk turned to Elia. The phrase "four votes" was bandied about.

In November Griffin won re-election with 65 percent of the vote.

Michelle Shimberg, the candidate considered most friendly to the administration, was defeated by Sally Harris, who was helped by virulent Elia critic Michael Weston, a former teacher.

Manteiga came to Griffin's celebration party. As the guests mingled, they marveled at the way candidates who bucked the establishment kept getting elected and re-elected. Board member Stuart had unseated longtime member Jack Lamb in 2012. Valdes, once the board outcast, held onto her seat.

"There was a sense that there had been a significant shift in the district, even though it took a couple of years to happen," Manteiga said. "No matter how hard the administration played hardball, inning after inning, they were losing."

Speculation about a no-confidence vote — which Manteiga reported in his newspaper column — began soon after that.

• • •

Candy Olson served on the School Board for 20 years. She walked away in November after a year in which she issued barbs from the dais, particularly at Griffin.

A former chairwoman of the Council of the Great City Schools, Olson acknowledged that any superintendent can get caught up in a vortex of politics and criticism.

"Everyone in the world would say there are things they could have done better," she said. But "it's very clear (Elia) has offended three board members, maybe beyond redemption, and the three board members are no more yielding than she is."

Has she stayed in the job too long?

"We have a very vocal group of people who are against MaryEllen for a variety of reasons," Olson said. "If you then have people who want to stir them up and are politically savvy, they can make it look like you've worn out your welcome."

Jason Pepe, the district's communications manager, has spent much of the past year trying to counter the noise with projects such as a redesigned website that showcases the district and Elia.

The district's Twitter feed has shown his boss serving doughnuts to bus drivers and doing the ALS bucket challenge. The images represent genuine human interaction, Pepe said. "Those tender moments," he calls them.

It frustrates Pepe that people do not always see Elia's human side. "She is a very empathetic, very sensitive person," he said.

"From the moment I met MaryEllen Elia, she has always put kids first."

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