Payout to fire Hillsborough school superintendent would top $1M

MaryEllen Elia is the focus of a board meeting on Tuesday.
MaryEllen Elia is the focus of a board meeting on Tuesday.
Published Jan. 17, 2015

TAMPA — Firing Hillsborough County school superintendent MaryEllen Elia would cost taxpayers more than $1 million in salary, benefits and unused sick and vacation time, according to numbers released Friday by the school district.

In preparation for Tuesday's planned discussion and possible vote on Elia's future, the district revised the agenda to include a detailed account of the payout.

To comply with her contract, the district would pay Elia an estimated $878,318 to cover the contract's remaining two years. That assumes her last day of work would be June 30, although there has been no discussion of a timetable.

"We had to make some logical assumptions," said district spokesman Stephen Hegarty.

The amount includes $577,797 in salary, assuming she would not receive a pay raise, which is negotiated every year.

It includes $33,030 in performance bonuses. Under her contract, Elia is rewarded when schools receive A grades, when no schools get D or F grades, when more students enroll in advanced placement courses and when they improve their scores on the AP exams. She also receives bonuses when minority students show improvement in state standardized tests.

In addition, the contract includes health and life insurance, pension benefits and a $1,500 yearly car allowance.

More than $100,000 is paid into two retirement accounts. She'd get that, times two.

Beyond the $878,318, Elia — who has held the superintendent's job since 2005 and is known for her strong work ethic — has banked $233,079 in unused vacation and sick time.

The grand total: $1.1 million.

"It is what it is," said School Board Chairwoman Susan Valdes, who asked for the agenda item and was widely criticized even when the payout was estimated conservatively at $500,000. "You know, it's a very special contract."

Signed in 2005 by then-Chairwoman Candy Olson, Elia's contract is a type that Florida law no longer allows. It covers three years and, if she gets a satisfactory rating on her annual evaluation, it automatically rolls over an additional year. "It's almost impossible for the contract not to be renewed," said board attorney Jim Porter. "You never reach a point where it just ends."

Porter pointed out that much of this money — such as the unused sick and vacation time — would be Elia's if she left voluntarily. "So it's not a choice between zero and a million," he said.

In recent years there has been talk of renegotiating her contract. But board members quickly realized that, because the state law would kick in if they made any changes, it would not be to her advantage to have such a discussion.

April Griffin, one of Elia's chief opponents on the board, wanted to update the scoring instrument. But Elia did not agree to that either.

On Friday, seeing the payout numbers, Griffin made the case that while $1.1 million is a lot, the district can save money by bringing in a superintendent with a more modest contract.

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"She's making really around $435,000 a year when you look at what is being paid into two different retirement plans," Griffin said. "There is nothing in this contract that benefits the community. The longer she stays on, the more we pay out."

Even the early ballpark estimates of $500,000 had some Hillsborough residents scratching their heads. Parents, employees and former employees have contacted board members all week, some accusing Elia's opponents of wanting to fire a top schools leader because of petty grudges.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi issued a pro-Elia statement Friday, following endorsements from Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, state Rep. Dana Young and others.

Some board members were reluctant to discuss the matter this week. Porter has advised them to be cautious, as the discussion is about terminating Elia's contract without cause.

"I think the most appropriate place to be heard will be at that board meeting," board member Doretha Edgecomb said.

Valdes, who has said she asked for the vote to put the long-simmering controversy to rest, is taking the brunt of public criticism.

"It has not been easy, but no one said leadership is easy," she said Friday. "You know how I feel about termination hearings. I dread those. But this is about terminating a contract. Not a person, a contract."

When asked if she thought the $1.1 million price tag might influence the vote, Valdes pointed out that the district is poised to spend millions on a security plan that some board members didn't want.

"There are things we can do that will not hurt anyone," she said.

Times staff writer Zack Peterson contributed to this report. Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol.