1. The Education Gradebook

Hillsborough School Board members can learn from infighting sideshow

Hillsborough County School District superintendent MaryEllen Elia’s supporters at Tuesday’s School Board meeting were wearing pink and scattered throughout the crowd.
Hillsborough County School District superintendent MaryEllen Elia’s supporters at Tuesday’s School Board meeting were wearing pink and scattered throughout the crowd.
Published Sep. 27, 2013

Far be it for any of us to try to educate those in the education business. But isn't there something to be learned from the sideshow that has become a Hillsborough County School Board meeting?

This week's gathering devolved from important school district issues out there, like, say, the aftermath of the deaths of two special education students or just making sure kids can read and write, into the latest installation in a very public power struggle.

The distracting drama centers on the faceoff between superintendent MaryEllen Elia and School Board Chairwoman April Griffin, with the chair taking point-blank if ultimately powerless aim at the powerful superintendent during Elia's evaluation.

So, how'd it go?

Griffin gave Elia the lowest marks and a vote of no confidence, though the bulk of the board supported the superintendent. Griffin made some good points to support her criticisms. She even sounded a positive note now and again.

And then the whole thing devolved into this sort of exchange:

Elia supporter Carol Kurdell to Griffin: "Take a look in the mirror tonight."

Griffin: "I do every night — thank you."

Kurdell: "Yeah, well, you might look a little harder."

And, scene!

What fun for the watching public, assuming they're there for Tuesday night entertainment and not concerned that the Bickersons might be running the eighth-largest school district in America.

(Speaking of the public: Kurdell defended her lack of written comments to accompany her high marks for Elia because, she said, she discussed those things with Elia "in private." Well. So much for a full public airing of a public concern, then, transparency being another troubling issue for the school district.)

Maybe here's a lesson from that meeting, its people and its politics:

Elia is tough and savvy. You are with or against her. "A bully," Griffin pronounced Elia's behavior with board members and staff, citing "cussing" and "yelling" as specifics. Heck, even the careful Stacy White suggested a breakthrough of Elia's "rugged exterior."

But you do not come to battle with Elia without being fully girded.

Sure, she may get caught unaware on a microphone sounding an awful lot like she's talking about stacking meetings with people who support her side. And it does not inspire confidence when two board members — Griffin and Susan Valdes, another Elia critic — will no longer meet with their superintendent one on one.

But who else but Elia could get a roomful of supporters to that evaluation meeting scattered throughout the audience wearing distinctive pink in support of her?

And among those supporters was no less than Kathleen Shanahan, Florida Board of Education member, who happened to be in a pink coat and extremely pink-and-purple boots.

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Subscribe to our free Gradebook newsletter

We’ll break down the local and state education developments you need to know every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Who else but Elia could rise from this snipefest looking above it all instead of in the thick of it? Truly, it is a talent.

A bigger lesson for the board is this:

The watching public is not impressed with infighting. And Elia isn't going anywhere.

Final assignment for the people who run Hillsborough schools: Please, quit your bickering. Deal with personalities you do not like. And find a way to make it work.


This site no longer supports your current browser. Please use a modern and up-to-date browser version for the best experience.

Chrome Firefox Safari Edge