Before the Hillsborough School Board ousted MaryEllen Elia, no one was more vocal in support of the hard-charging superintendent than Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
"Terminating Mary Ellen's contract would be a huge mistake," Buckhorn said the week before the board voted 4-3 to fire her in January.
He added: "She's a world-class leader. I think she's put the Hillsborough school district on the map. I think to lose that kind of talent over petty, personal disagreements would do a disservice to the city. You don't have to like someone to recognize talent and to recognize that they are capable of running a great organization. I think she does. … This is petty disagreements that folks can't seem to get beyond, and they lose sight of the bigger picture, which is the performance of the district, and that district is ... a top-performing district and she is a top-performing superintendent, and she should be allowed to finish,"
So now — in light of the news that credit-rating agencies have warned the Hillsborough School District that its credit is at risk because its reserves have been drawn down over the past several years — we asked Buckhorn if he stands by those statements.
"Absolutely, I do," Buckhorn said Wednesday. "I'm not privy to their budget right now, but I do. I thought she did a great job as superintendent. I obviously was not shy about what I thought was an unfortunate process. I thought she led the district through some very, very difficult times."
And what does Buckhorn make of the fact that, regardless of who knew what when, the bond-rating agencies have raised a red flag about the trends they've seen developing over the last several years?
"I spend a lot of time working on that relationship with the agencies and making sure that they are comfortable," Buckhorn said. "Part of what drives some of their decision-making is stability in the governance. Because the politics and the elected officials matter in their world. They want to know that there is stability, that there is a path forward, that the elected officials, or in this case, the appointed officials, are making the right fiscal decisions. Their outlook is fairly conservative. So I think the current instability probably lends itself to those downgrades."
Credit-rating agencies"are big believers in fund balance and having adequate fund balance, which is why we work so hard to keep it at 25, 23, 24 percent — above the 20 percent that they like," Buckhorn said. "But not being privy to how fund balance either went up or down over at the school system, I don't know why they downgraded it."
"I had these conversations with the rating agencies when we were having to tap the reserves," Buckhorn said. "What they look for is a pattern of that happening, and you can't reduce your fund balance below a point that they are comfortable with, which is why you saw us start to put money back into the fund balance when we got the opportunity to do it. They recognized, certainly in our case, two things: One, our fund balance was very healthy going into this. Two, that we were in the midst of a recession and we had to take some pretty drastic steps to balance things. They got all that. … They were really happy when we started to replenish it."
Buckhorn said he stands by his endorsement of record of Elia's leadership, including her fiscal stewardship at the district, which she also has defended.
"She got them through some really, really tough times," he said. "And sometimes tough times require tough decisions."
And what if he had to hire a chief financial officer and Elia applied?
"I would look very favorably on MaryEllen Elia," Buckhorn said. "I watched her work for a lot of years in the worst recession we've had since the Great Depression in a school that's largely tied to property tax revenues. We all got whacked hard, but I'm sure they got whacked just as hard as we did."