Hillsborough School Board votes to oust Elia

MaryEllen Elia speaks to reporters Tuesday after the vote to terminate her contract without cause. Elia, 66, said that the Hillsborough County School District still means a lot to her and she hopes it moves forward. Elia’s last day will be March 5.
MaryEllen Elia speaks to reporters Tuesday after the vote to terminate her contract without cause. Elia, 66, said that the Hillsborough County School District still means a lot to her and she hopes it moves forward. Elia’s last day will be March 5.
Published Dec. 15, 2015

TAMPA — Hillsborough County school superintendent MaryEllen Elia, the hard-driving, highly decorated leader of the nation's eighth-largest school district, was fired Tuesday by a new School Board majority that objected to her unusually generous three-year contract and the way she interacted with them.

"The people I represent, my bosses, are unhappy," said board member April Griffin, who has feuded with Elia for years. She made the motion before a packed meeting room to terminate the superintendent's contract without cause.

That Griffin would do so surprised no one. Nor did people familiar with the board doubt that chairwoman Susan Valdes and board member Cindy Stuart, who seconded the motion, would vote with her.

The suspense, after more than 70 speakers delivered mostly glowing remarks about Elia, was how newly elected board member Sally Harris would vote. The other new member, Melissa Snively, had already said publicly that the $1 million cost of terminating the contract would be an issue for her.

Harris telegraphed her decision at 7:15 p.m. when she recounted complaints voters shared about high-stakes tests, low morale, administrators who were not accessible and disharmony between Elia and the board.

"Although some fault may rest on both sides, the bad atmosphere … is keeping our district from moving forward," Harris said.

The vote was 4-3 with members Snively, Carol Kurdell and Doretha Edgecomb dissenting. Edgecomb called the whole exercise a "moment of disbelief" and said the school district was in "a very dark place."

Elia's last day will be March 5, at which time the board can begin to discuss a succession plan. She will use vacation time from then until June 30.

Elia sat stoically through more than three hours of testimonials and board remarks, then faced reporters immediately after the vote.

"This district means a lot to me," she said. Brushing off reminders of the many honors she has received, she said, "We have done, as a team, a lot of work. And I hope that the district continues to move forward."

In the lobby, which filled with district staff dressed in red in support of Elia, administrators shook their heads.

"It's just shocking," said Julie Kelly, principal of Brooker Elementary School. "What a loss for our kids."

Seffner Elementary principal Elizabeth Giles wondered how she would break the news to her teachers. "I am horrified," she said. "I feel like we've had the rug pulled out from under us."

Boyette Springs Elementary teacher Wendy Taylor was close to tears. "It's an embarrassment to Hillsborough County," she said. "We are just sick about it."

While some speakers chided the board members over the cost of terminating the contract, Griffin and Stuart argued that the agreement, which pays Elia more than $400,000 when benefits are included, would continue to be a drain on tax dollars as long as it remained in effect.

Stuart called the deal, originally inked in 2005, "unconscionable" and said, "I make decisions up here as if I were making them for my own family."

But the reaction among educational leaders outside Hillsborough was largely one of dismay.

"It's none of my business. I don't live down there. But it's wrong," Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning said. "She has guided that district through thick and thin, and this is the thanks she gets."

Steve Luikart, chairman of the Pasco board, said of the Hillsborough board: "They don't understand what they just lost."

Elia, 66, was educated in New York and joined the district in 1986. After working as a reading specialist at Plant High School, she rose through the ranks of district administration. She has served as superintendent longer than most chiefs of large urban districts in the nation, including Hillsborough, which is known for stability in leadership.

But, while widely considered one of the most effective school leaders of her generation, she failed to win the trust and confidence of the full board, starting with Griffin and Valdes.

A political shift began in 2012, when newcomer Stuart unseated the better-funded incumbent Jack Lamb. That same year, two special-needs students died accidentally, one following a school bus ride, and most of the board learned of that incident only after the family filed a lawsuit. The tragedy led to questions about safety and disclosure.

Several parents of disabled students spoke at Tuesday's meeting. "The district isn't living up to what it needs to do for our kids," Susan Parks said.

In 2014, when transportation employees complained openly about the district's bus system, Elia responded with a comprehensive improvement plan and began purchasing new buses. By then it was campaign season. Griffin was re-elected with 65 percent of the vote. Harris defeated Michelle Shimberg, who was widely considered an Elia supporter.

Rumors of a vote to dismiss Elia began circulating soon after that.

The response, from leaders in business, political and educational circles, was no less impressive. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Attorney General Pam Bondi, state Rep. Dana Young and others rose to her defense, saying it would be damaging to the community and economy if the board dismissed one of the top superintendents in the nation. Kathleen Shanahan, CEO of a Tampa-based construction company and former chairwoman of the State Board of Education, circulated an online petition.

"This is not about MaryEllen Elia's leadership, it's about your leadership," she said in one of many rebukes that the board heard during Tuesday's meeting.

Even the Tampa Port Authority weighed in, voting 4-2 Tuesday morning on a resolution supporting Elia.

In December, before the question of a contract termination landed on the board agenda, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents named Elia its Superintendent of the Year.

She is one of four finalists for the national award given by the School Superintendents Association, and traveled to Washington, D.C., early this month for her interview.

Times staff writers Zack Peterson and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol.