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  1. Education

Carlton: Why Sally Harris cast the deciding vote to oust MaryEllen Elia

Sally Harris said MaryEllen Elia is “an icon,” but she felt change was needed.
Published Jan. 24, 2015

Interesting fact about Sally Harris, the brand-new Hillsborough County School Board member who cast this week's deciding and explosive vote to oust schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia:

Absolutely no one thought Harris would win her race in the first place.

How could she? Her opponent, Michelle Shimberg, carries a very big name in this town. She got endorsements and/or donations from no less than (deep breath) the mayor, the sheriff, the state attorney, Florida's attorney general, the classroom teachers association and members of the City Council, County Commission and, oh yeah, Congress. She also raised five times more money than Harris.

And Harris, who has been a teacher, marriage instructor and foster mother — who owns a horsey child care ranch and campaigned in the company of a pet pig named Petunia — won anyway.

Here is another interesting fact about Sally Harris: Talk about her interactions with the ousted Elia back in their earlier days in education, and she will tell you, "I loved her." And then: "I still love her."

"The woman is just an icon," Harris says of the superintendent to whom she just gave the boot.

So what gives? How did Harris come to be the final blow in a 4-3 vote that has drawn harsh criticism about Tampa's future — not just for its educational reputation, but for national-class leaders like Elia?

"I totally, totally respect her. I was looking forward to working with her," Harris said. "But our system is broken."

Elia, she said, is a great leader who had become unapproachable. And the rift between her and her detractors turned out to be too deep to mend, Harris said.

School Board members April Griffin and Susan Valdes made headlines as they clashed with Elia's autocratic style. On the campaign trail, Harris said she heard often about "the embarrassment that the tension on the board is causing."

"Mrs. Elia is extremely competent — she's way above competent, she's super," Harris said. "And yet this conflict, it was embarrassing.

"She just forgot how to keep the communication open."

Harris said she thought about abstaining. She hoped she might get snowed in on a Colorado ski trip and miss the vote. "It was definitely not the way I hoped I'd start my term," said Harris, 64.

It should also be said for the record that Harris differs with Elia on some important educational issues. Elia is a strong champion of Common Core standards, for instance. Harris opposes them.

Harris' campaign turned out to be a smart, old-school one: attending Little League games in her Sally Harris T-shirt, doing her grocery shopping in far-flung neighborhoods.

Also for the record, her paid campaign consultant was one of Elia's avowed and vocal critics.

Still, when she was asked after the election if she would side with those unhappy with the current administration, Harris told the Times, "I am going in with my eyes wide open."

Elia's ouster has drawn deserved criticism from those who value her reputation on the national stage and who think that surely grownups could have worked things out in the name of what's best for Hillsborough County. They point out Elia was just named Florida superintendent of the year and is in the hunt for the national title — but here, she's shown the door. They worry about the caliber of the next superintendent this board might pick.

I ask Harris whether she has any regrets, and she says no.

"I'm sad. I'm sad that it had to come to this," she says — as were a whole lot of people in Hillsborough County this week.

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