Hillsborough School Board votes to oust Superintendent Elia

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click to enlarge Attendees pack the house to weigh in on Superintendent Mary Ellen Elia's employment status. - Anastasia Dawson
Anastasia Dawson
Attendees pack the house to weigh in on Superintendent Mary Ellen Elia's employment status.

Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia — Florida’s Superintendent of the Year and one of four finalists for the American Association of School Administrators 2015’s National Superintendent of the Year — lost her job Tuesday night.

In a narrow 4-3 vote, school board members decided to give Elia the boot at Tuesday’s meeting in front of hundreds packed into the board room and overflowing outside of the Raymond O. Shelton School Administrative Center.

“I feel disappointed that I’m not going to be here leading the team of Hillsborough County Public Schools any longer, but there are great people here,” said Elia, who wore a tight-lipped smile throughout the entire four-hour discussion on her employment, but could barely hold back her tears as votes rolled in.

“The students are the important thing right now, and we have to get beyond all of this and move forward in this county,” Elia said. “There were disagreements and this was obviously a huge action taken by the board this evening.”

After a handful of questions from the media, Elia was quickly ushered out of the boardroom to thunderous applause from her supporters. But after a quick, 10-minute break, she returned to the dais to finish out the regular business of the meeting.

Elia’s last day on the job as superintendent in Hillsborough County will be March 5, and she will use remaining vacation days until June 30, the school district’s attorney said.

Though she’ll no longer be at the helm of the nation’s 8th largest school district, Elia will receive a parting gift from taxpayers to the tune of $1.11 million for being fired “without cause.” That number is a combination of her nearly $289,000-a-year salary plus benefits and unused time off included in the 2 ½ years left on her contract, according to cost estimates posted with Tuesday’s agenda.

It was that buyout that spurred many of the whopping 71 public speakers to show up to the mid-workday meeting, few of whom could hold back their emotions.

click to enlarge One of the overflow areas. - Anastasia Dawson
Anastasia Dawson
One of the overflow areas.

“I don’t want to give Ms. Elia $1 million, I want her to work for her money,” said speaker and former school board candidate Joe Robinson. “This is truly a catfight based on animosity in the system. Let she without sin cast the first stone.”

School board members Doretha Edgecomb, Carol Kurdell and Melissa Snively were the only members to side with Elia, despite hordes of supporters dressed in red and wearing “Support of MaryEllen!!!” stickers that came to her defense.

“As a 50-year educator and professional with 33 of them spent in this district I can unequivocally say that today is among the darkest days in this district and for me personally and professionally,” said Edgecomb. “No matter the result of the vote tonight, tomorrow will come and our school district will continue to move forward even as we live in this moment of disbelief. As tomorrow comes, the healing must begin.”

Elia’s 2014 was marked by an onslaught of criticisms from her school board, including chairwoman Susan Valdes, April Griffin, and Cindy Stuart. Ultimately their arguments won over new school board member Sally Harris, who opted to “embrace change.”

Valdes, who requested Elia’s contract be on Tuesday’s agenda, called the tension between Elia and the board “a distraction for everyone” and assured the audience it was a “business decision and not a personality contest.”

Stuart stated that the superintendent’s relationship with her board was “broken and shows no signs of improving.

click to enlarge Elia addresses reporters after the vote. - Anastasia Dawson
Anastasia Dawson
Elia addresses reporters after the vote.
“Clearly the board has shown and demonstrated it demands more from our leadership, and the resistance to address these demands shows me there’s a need for drastic change,” Stuart said.

Among their complaints, board members claim the language in Elia’s contract makes it extremely difficult for her to ever receive an unsatisfactory evaluation without “good AND just cause.” While the contract only stipulated three years when signed in 2005, it is extended for another year if Elia receives an overall “satisfactory” rating for her year’s performance. Her contract also doesn’t fall under a 2011 Florida law that caps how much money a school superintendent can make and get in a severance package.

Though three board members rated Elia as “below satisfactory” on her last evaluation, her contract still automatically renewed.

Such an ostentatious “perpetual” contract “will never happen again,” Griffin said.

There’s also the matter of three shocking student deaths under Elia’s watch – two young girls who died on school buses and a special needs student who drowned in a lake near her school. The father of Andrew Joseph III, a 14-year-old killed by a car on Interstate 4 after being kicked out of the Florida State Fair on last year’s Fair Day, spoke to school board members during Tuesday’s meeting about the many security issues surrounding the traditional day off school, casting yet another shadow on Elia.

Valdes was backed by a surprising number of Tuesday’s speakers, including a disabled student and multiple parents with children in special education.

“I’m frustrated when I hear the accolades of the superintendent but no one is talking about our students, no one's talking about our poor graduation rates,” said local activist Bishop Michelle B. Patty to the school board. “You do what we asked you to do when we voted for you. It's change we need, not tomorrow but today. Have the courage to do the right thing.”

Though not every speaker spoke glowingly of Elia’s history with the school district, nearly all expressed disgust with the high cost of firing Elia and the seemingly personal nature of the termination hearing, despite members' claims that the issues weren’t personal.

Before the vote, former Hillsborough School board member Carolyn Bricklemyer, who was on the board when Elia was hired in 2005, told the board it was “very disrespectful and totally unfair” to put two new school board members in the position to weigh in on Elia’s employment and implored school board members to “take a step back and let cooler heads prevail.”

“We used to have fun,” said former school board member Jennifer Faliero to the board. “I’m asking each of you to reflect on and remember those kind things that united us for a period of 4 to 6 years. Those were really good times … Get some counseling, not legal counseling.”

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