TAMPA — The Hillsborough County school district is looking for a new leader after the school board voted 4-3 Tuesday to terminate its contract with Superintendent MaryEllen Elia without cause.
Elia, who has worked for the school district since 1986 and been superintendent since 2005, will receive a payout from the district that will total an estimated $1.1 million in salary, benefits and unused vacation and sick leave for the remaining 2 1⁄2 years on her contract. Her last day will be March 5, though she will be paid for unused time off from then through June 30, the end of the school district’s fiscal year.
The decision to terminate Elia’s contract came after an emotionally charged discussion that involved comments from dozens of community members in a packed board room. Hundreds showed up for the meeting, some wearing red in support of Elia, with the crowd spilling into the lobby at school district headquarters.
“I feel disappointed I’m not going to be here leading the team in Hillsborough County any longer,” said Elia, who was chosen last month by her peers as the state’s superintendent of the year. “But there are great people here and there are great teachers that every day are working with kids. The students are the important thing right now. I am sure the leadership of my staff, the teachers, principals and everyone else will move students forward and that’s what’s important.”
Board chairwoman Susan Valdes asked last week for the termination of Elia’s contract to be added to Tuesday’s agenda. She said her goal was to put to rest an air of uncertainty and tension — heightened by the November election — that’s been felt across the district for months, Valdes said.
“In my mind, this is about buying out the superintendent’s contract, not firing MaryEllen Elia,” Valdes said. “This is a business decision, not a personality contest.”
Along with Valdes, board members April Griffin, Sally Harris and Cindy Stuart voted to end Elia’s contract, with members Doretha Edgecomb, Carol Kurdell and Melissa Snively opposed.
“Today is among the darkest days for this district and for me, personally and professionally,” Edgecomb said. “No matter the outcome of today’s action, tomorrow will come. And this school district will survive.”
For a decade, Elia has been in charge of running the eighth-largest school district in the country and the largest employer in Hillsborough County. She oversees 205,000 students and more than 25,000 employees.
Some board members have clashed with the superintendent in recent years. On her most recent evaluation, Elia received her lowest marks in her dealings with the school board. She was scored the highest in the areas of labor relations, ethics and instructional leadership.
Some on the board have said the tool used to evaluate the superintendent needs to be revised and that her contract is weighted too heavily in her favor.
“Clearly the board has demonstrated it demands more from our leadership,” Stuart said. “That is not a bad thing.”
Griffin, who made the motion to terminate the superintendent’s contract, said she has sensed tension in the district since the election, in which she was re-elected.
“The people I represent, my bosses, are unhappy and want this district to go in a different direction,” she said. “Elections have consequences. Regardless of what has been said, I am looking at this strictly from a business perspective.”
Harris, elected to her first term in November, said she has watched the school system “make great strides” under Elia’s leadership.
“Ms. Elia is undoubtedly a proven leader,” Harris said. “Currently there is an atmosphere our leaders are not always approachable and accessible. The bad atmosphere is keeping our district from moving forward.”
Kurdell, last year’s chairwoman, said the decision to get rid of Elia didn’t make sense, saying the district has the highest financial rating in the state and that students’ test scores are rising despite tougher standards.
“My whole point last year was for getting us in the middle of the road,” she said. “I thought we were there. I was sadly mistaken.”
Snively, elected in November, said she could not support spending taxpayer money to buy out Elia’s contract without cause.
“I acknowledge that our superintendent is not perfect,” Snively said. “No one is. However, the pros definitely outweigh the cons by far.”
Before the vote, 71 speakers in front of an audience of more than 200 stated their cases for whether Elia should stay or go.
“You need to step back and let cooler heads prevail,” said former school board member Carolyn Bricklemye. “Either vote no or someone defer.”
Elia’s supporters included principals, teachers, former school board members, members of the business community and the leaders of the local teachers union, who said losing Elia will be a setback as the district this year is transitioning to a new set of state tests that are expected to be tougher.
“We believe in the power of positive and collaborative labor relations,” Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association President Jean Clements said. “We disagree. We argue. We sometimes walk away frustrated. But we return to the table and we keep talking.”
Elia’s critics said the culture in the district needs to change. Those arguing to end her contract included several parents, community members and two former school board candidates.
“Without a doubt, this district has built one of the worst school-to-prison pipelines in the state of Florida,” said community activist Marilyn Williams, who last year filed a federal complaint against the school district, which is now being investigated, over possible racial disparities in school discipline.
By staying on through early March, Elia, one of four finalists for national teacher of the year, said she will be able to help the district transition smoothly to new interim leadership.
“This district means a lot to me,” she said, talking to reporters after the decision. She appeared shaken but remained composed before returning to the meeting to announce new principal appointments. “I hope the district continues to move forward. I hope for the best for all employees, students and the team of Hillsborough County.”