Hillsborough County School Superintendent MaryEllen Elia is a remarkable woman. Even her critics concede that.
So things must be pretty bad for the school board to even consider firing her, which it will discuss on Tuesday. There is a proposal to fire her “without cause,” and if you didn’t go to law school, that basically means, “she didn’t do anything hideous, but we just don’t like her.”
The board has taken a lot of heat for putting this up for a vote, and I will be surprised if the measure passes and Elia is terminated. Local leaders, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, have rallied behind Elia, and she has received the editorial backing of both major newspapers in the market. She is one of four finalists for national superintendent of the year, for goodness’ sakes.
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Competence is not the issue. We got here because of the dismissive and combative way she deals with some board members, particularly Chairwoman Susan Valdes and April Griffin.
A lot of people are saying upset board members should get over it and put their egos aside. There are two sides to every story, though.
I wonder how many of Elia’s strongest defenders would deal with employees who were combative, who didn’t follow through on basic requests and who routinely challenged their authority. Angry board members say that’s how Elia operates.
Posting something bad about your boss on Facebook or some other social media site can get you fired. Yet, Elia planted a yard sign endorsing Griffin’s opponent in the November election, and it got a lot of news coverage. That was stupid.
Elia reports to the school board. Board members report to you, the people. You elect them. You can fire them. And in that November election, Griffin trounced her opponent.
You think there’s anyone in this town who doesn’t know about the feud between Griffin and Elia? So, when Griffin beat Dipa Shah with 65 percent of the vote in the election, that’s the public — ultimately, the boss — having their say on how school system business needs to be conducted.
Elia had better listen.
Board members should listen too, though.
Firing Elia would be risky and expensive. She would be owed about $500,000 for the remainder of her contract, and then there would be the matter of finding a replacement. The board could be ridiculed in education circles (where Elia is respected) for firing the superintendent of the year, so top candidates might hesitate to get involved.
Simply putting this on the agenda is risky, too. It puts the board’s two newest members — Melissa Snively and Sally Harris — in a tough spot. They’ve only been on the board for two months, and one of them, probably, would have to vote in favor of terminating Elia for the measure to pass.
If those in favor of replacing Elia think she is tough to deal with now, see what happens if she survives this vote.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, for this issue to come before the board again. So what leverage would members (and the public) have then?
What I wish would happen is for Elia to acknowledge, publicly, that her critics have a point and she will try to do better in the future — and mean it. Then I would like those critics to be kind and understanding bosses and give the relationship one more chance.
I also would like to win the lottery, but that’s another matter.
If Elia is really the leader her supporters believe her to be, this is her chance to prove it. She was politically foolish to put up the campaign sign. When board members ask for something, it’s the people’s business and the superintendent needs to respond quickly and professionally.
MaryEllen Elia has many positives, but she needs to remember whom she works for. Hopefully that will happen by Tuesday.