TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School Board is not the only locally elected body with mixed feelings about outgoing school superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
Though Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is a big fan of Elia, the City Council split Thursday on giving Elia a commendation thanking her for 10 years of service as superintendent. The vote for the commendation, suggested by council member Harry Cohen, was 5-2, with Mary Mulhern and Frank Reddick voting no.
Reddick said after the meeting that he voted against the commendation because city officials "keep dipping" into School Board affairs that do not concern them, and "we should stay out of that."
"The city of Tampa has no business trying to politicize Ms. Elia and the vote that took place at the school district," he said.
Mulhern said it was "unbelievable" that the council would consider a commendation.
"MaryEllen Elia was fired by her employers — by her boss, the School Board," she said. "I can't think of another case where someone gets lauded and celebrated after they've been fired from a job that is a public responsibility. … When you are responsible for the lives of children, I think one strike is too many."
Elaborating, Mulhern cited the deaths of three students:
• 7-year-old disabled student Isabella Herrera, who died in January 2012 after suffering respiratory failure aboard a school bus. A bus video show that the driver and an aide did not call 911, but used a radio to try to reach their supervisor, as was protocol, then called Herrera's mother, who arrived and called 911. The School Board, most of whose members were unaware of the death until the girl's parents sued, agreed to pay $800,000 last year to settle a federal lawsuit.
• 11-year-old Jennifer Caballero, who had Down syndrome and drowned in a pond behind Rodgers Middle School after wandering away from a crowded gym class in October 2012. The school district agreed to pay a negotiated settlement estimated at more than $500,000. Investigations led to three firings and several resignations at the school. The district also took steps after the deaths to improve safety for special-needs students on buses and in school.
• 6-year-old Keith Logan Coty, who died a day after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in January 2014 at Seminole Heights Elementary School. In a lawsuit, his parents accuse the school district of being indifferent to student safety and of discouraging staffers from calling 911 in emergencies. The district denies the allegations.
"If somebody dies, it goes to the top," Mulhern said. In the Herrera case, she said, "her employers didn't know this happened for nine months. … For me, that's enough. That's three strikes."
Mulhern said she didn't "disagree that (Elia has) done very good work over 10 years," but the concerns about student safety were overriding for her.
"The powers that be in Tampa and Hillsborough County just circled the wagons around this powerful person," who, Mulhern noted, had the authority to give out contracts.
She noted Buckhorn's reaction to Elia's firing, including a television interview in which he compared School Board members who voted to dismiss her to characters in the movie Mean Girls. He defended that statement weeks later. Mulhern called it sexist.
"That's why I voted against the commendation, because enough is enough."
The City Council plans to present the commendation to Elia — whose last day on the job was Thursday — on March 19.
Contact Richard Danielson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times.