School board terminates superintendent’s contract


Isabel Hanewicz

A sea of supporters was not enough to deter Hillsborough County School Board from voting 4-3 in favor of terminating superintendent MaryEllen Elia’s contract. Board members Susan Valdes, Sally Harris, Cindy Stuart and April Griffin voted for the motion, with Melissa Snively, Doretha Edgecomb and Carol Kurdell voting against.

The decision means the district will buy out Elia’s contract, estimated at $1.1 million including sick and vacation time, pension, salary and bonuses. Her last day will be March 5.

Despite the price tag, members cited growing tensions between the board and Elia as reasons a change is needed.

“There is an atmosphere that our leaders are not always approachable by or accessible to concerned parents, teachers and administrators,” said Sally Harris, a new board member. “While we need to embrace what works, we also need to entertain and embrace some change.”

[The] relationship is clearly broken, and shows no signs of improvement.”

— Cindy Stuart, board member

Although Harris noted Elia’s strong leadership abilities, she called the relationship between the board and superintendent “contentious” at times and something preventing the district from moving forward.

Cindy Stuart agreed with Harris, also mentioning the superintendent’s contract, which guarantees her a one-year renewal if she gets above a “satisfactory” rating from the board. That type of contract, common when Elia took the job 10 years ago, is no longer allowed under Florida law for public employees.

“[The] relationship is clearly broken, and shows no signs of improvement,” Stuart said. “The contract we are talking about is unconscionable and unfair to the public I represent.”

Over seventy people came out to support Elia during the public comments section, which lasted almost three hours and was held prior to the board’s discussion. It was largely dominated by teachers, administrators, parents and local leaders clad in Elia’s signature red.

“In a time of great uncertainty, we need a strong leader,” said Kathy Hill, a fourth grade teacher at Mitchell Elementary who was the first speaker. “I’m grateful for the vision and leadership of Mrs. Elia and her team.”

Elia was praised for the work she had done in her tenure, which included receiving Florida’s Superintendent of the Year award and being one of four finalists for National Superintendent of the Year.

I can [honestly] say that today is one of the darkest days in our district and for me personally.”

— Doretha Edgecomb, board member

“I should hope at my funeral someone gives me a eulogy [like] these people gave you today,” said speaker Martin Guerra to Elia.

While they were the minority, criticisms of Elia and her board were evident. Parents of ESE students spoke of school switches and lack of answers. Others spoke of the graduation rate of black students, especially males, calling the district a “school to prison pipeline.”

Susan Parks, mother of an ESE student, started crying when she spoke to the board. “This district isn’t living up to what it needs to do for our kids,” she said.

Another advocate, Michelle Patty, voiced her frustration with the time spent discussing the accolades and not students. “I know you must feel like David, but you are a Goliath,” said Patty to the board. “Have the courage to do the right thing.”

The opponents of Valdes’ motion included cost as reasoning, with Vice Chair Edgecomb saying she struggled to understand the reasoning for the motion.

“I can [honestly] say that today is one of the darkest days in our district and for me personally,” Edgecomb said.

The final verdict shocked teachers and Elia supporters, who left with red eyes to match their red clothing.

As a new semester begins for the district, the members won’t be stalled by the decision. “Tomorrow will come, and our school district will continue to move forward, even as we live in this moment of disbelief,” said Edgecomb. “We will go on because we have promises to keep to the most important people in all of this mess: the students.”