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  1. The Education Gradebook

Carlton: School Board should think before giving Elia the boot

Okay, it's no longer amusing.

What's happening, or may be about to happen, over at the Hillsborough County school district has officially stopped seeming like petty squabbles and turned into a full-blown game-changer.

And not in a good way.

Maybe you've read past headlines regarding certain members of the school board who seem perpetually at odds with the powerful superintendent, MaryEllen Elia. Who, program note here, was just named Florida's superintendent of the year and is a finalist for top in the nation.

And next week, they just might fire her.

Members of the school board, Susan Valdes and April Griffin in particular, have famously butted heads with Elia on issues including the very serious matter of the handling of two student deaths.

Elia generally manages to make them look like they're picayune while she's big-picture — though, disappointingly, she did stoop to posting a campaign sign for Griffin's opponent in her South Tampa yard. This was free speech and bad form both.

But even with her autocratic style, Elia has done good things for Hillsborough County, including boosting academic performance and helping to win a $100 million Gates grant. She also has the faith of local leaders —including this city's mayor, who is perpetually pushing to make Tampa a player on the national stage. Mayor Bob Buckhorn has called Elia a "world-class leader" who "put the Hillsborough school district on the map."

No question, Elia could find ways to better get along with the whole of that seven-headed board. But she did not steal money or get arrested or get caught water-skiing around Tampa Bay when she was supposed to be at work. When the board meets Tuesday to consider whether to fire her, they will not have cause to do so. If they can get four of seven votes to fire her without cause— and given two new members with alliances untested, it looks like it's going to be close — they will also have to buy her out to the tune of something like a million dollars.

That's a chunk of change to get rid of a relationship grown-ups could surely find a way to fix. And voters tend to remember that many zeros.

As for Elia, it would go a long way if she stepped up to talk about improving communication, if she acknowledged her role in this and agreed to do a better job of considering what board members have to say.

As amusing as those conflicts could be — like when a frustrated Griffin said Elia was "full of (colorful word for excrement)" — there is a small thing that has always bothered me in this.

Because the players happen to be women, it has given a certain ignorant contingent room to snicker about how powerful women just can't seem to get along with each other — when in truth, powerful women manage conflict just as well as powerful men.

So here's hoping school board members think long and hard about what this district would lose — not a perfect superintendent, certainly, but one who brings a lot to the table — and what it looks like when they can't find a way to make it work.

And it won't serve Hillsborough County well if their decision comes down to style and not substance — if it's a vote for payback, not progress.

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