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Thursday, Aug 16, 2018
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Elia decision shows big divide county must address

Many people will mock the 4-3 decision Tuesday night by the Hillsborough County School Board to terminate the contract of Superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

They will wonder how someone who is a finalist for national Superintendent of the Year can be out of a job. They will wonder what kind of wacky joint we’re running here for essentially firing a woman of considerable accomplishment.

Those are legitimate questions, I guess, but if anyone was listening, the answers came during nearly three hours of public comment before the board voted.

The auditorium was packed, mostly with Elia supporters. All the seats were filled, and people stood shoulder to shoulder along the walls. More than 70 people came forward to comment, and at least two-thirds of them — probably more — supported Elia.

It was the voices that always feel outnumbered that ultimately spoke the loudest, though. They told board members minority students aren’t getting the help they need to succeed. They pointed to dismal graduation rates among those students.

Parents talked about threats from administrators when they tried to get answers. They spoke of bullying tactics, intimidation by officials, and requests for help that routinely were ignored. Parents of special-needs students spoke of the frustration of dealing with a system that celebrates high-achievers but passes their students from school to school.

We were reminded by those parents how two special-needs students died on Elia’s watch and how the superintendent and her staff were less than forthcoming until legal action by the children’s parents forced their hand.

This went beyond the personality clashes between Elia and some board members, most notably April Griffin. This was the ugly underbelly of a school system with a rock-star superintendent who enjoyed the backing of political, civic and business leaders.

Those issues hung over the meeting, even as many of those same political, civic and business leaders went to the front of the room to tell board members they’d be crazy to take this action on Elia.

Board member and Elia supporter Doretha Edgecomb called this one of the “darkest days” in the county’s history, and from her perspective that’s probably true. Elia, as I have stated often, has immense talent, and her accomplishments in 10 years on the job are considerable.

Here’s what is really dark, though.

It’s not the $1.1 million buyout Elia will receive; the board will recoup that through other savings. It’s not the removal of a popular and powerful superintendent in what often has played out as a war of words with board members she doesn’t like.

It’s that too many students and employees don’t feel empowered to speak up because they’re afraid of reprisals. It’s that parents who want to be involved, particularly in minority communities, don’t think the superintendent considered them important enough to be heard.

As board member Sally Harris, in just her second month since winning election, noted, “My impression is that morale at all levels is at an all-time low.”

This move wasn’t about the petulance of board members who had their egos bruised, and it’s not about those same members giving Elia her just reward for years of arrogance.

This meeting showed that the school system is divided, often along racial and economic lines. Everybody should have a seat at the table, not just those champions of business, politics and privilege.

That’s the lesson to take forward from Tuesday night. As Elia left the auditorium to a loud and sustained ovation from supporters, it became clear how sad it is that it took something like this to ram that home.

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