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Tuesday, Sep 16, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns
COLUMN

Elia’s leadership style again called into question

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When the Hillsborough County School Board voted 4-2 last week to extend Superintendent MaryEllen Elia’s contract by one year, let’s just say there were bigger stories that day in our city.

Even given her often-fractious relationship with some board members, bringing Elia back for a 10th year on the job was never in question. She has a rolling three-year contract that automatically extends a year if she scores high enough on the combined evaluation of the seven board members. The board’s actual vote is largely for show.

But it seems like there’s always something between the superintendent and board, and in this case the friction wasn’t coming from whom you might expect. District 3 board member Cindy Stuart, not noted Elia irritant April Griffin, is miffed at the way the largely ceremonial vote was taken.

Stuart had plans to be out of the country on vacation and requested the vote be delayed. It’s not unusual to hold off on votes on large matters so the full board can attend. It didn’t happen this time, though.

“There are deadlines for (evaluations) to be turned in, and when that happens the media and public asks to see them. So we put them on the agenda and vote,” school spokesman Steve Hegerty said. “But it’s correct to say the vote is ceremonial.”

Stuart is sharp, asks uncomfortable questions, and no one was quite sure how she would have voted on Elia’s renewal. She told me Tuesday she isn’t even sure now, a week after the fact, how she would have voted. Stuart isn’t the flamethrower at Elia that Griffin and Susan Valdes are, but she is also not as reliably supportive of the superintendent as other board members.

She thinks that uncertainty may have affected the decision to push the contract onto the agenda for a vote while she was absent. “A 4-3 vote sounds a lot different than 4-2,” she said.

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Why, you may ask, does it matter?

For the answer, look to Tuesday’s primary election. Elia supporters Stacy White and Candy Olson are leaving the board, and Griffin is locked in a scrum with eight challengers for the District 6 countywide seat. Depending how those elections go, the new board could have enough votes to bring Elia’s future into question.

Even that might not matter because Elia has a seriously great contract. Not only does it pay $283,000 a year, the evaluation tool basically grades her on a curve. If a couple of members decide to give her the highest marks, it almost doesn’t matter how the other members evaluate her. Her average score likely would be high enough to trigger a renewal.

Change the contract, you say? It can’t be done unless Elia agrees.

“It’s an ironclad document,” Stuart said. “I don’t know why (a previous board) ever approved it.”

Stuart’s own written evaluation, submitted before she left on vacation, suggested she has some serious issues with Elia. Most of them have to do with how Elia responds to requests from board members on a variety of subjects.

“We have seen the superintendent move mountains to get certain things done in this district,” Stuart said. “But when she ignores basic requests for information, it’s disrespectful. There are things we ask for that we don’t get. There is information we want that we don’t get.

“It’s like she’s saying, ‘We don’t know why you want it or what you’ll do with it, so we won’t get it to you.’ ”

That has been the chief complaint about Elia for a long time. As talented and capable as she is in many areas of her job, it’s not uncommon to hear that she is dismissive to anyone she thinks might oppose her. Her political skills are unquestioned and her accomplishments are many, but there is this issue of her leadership style.

“This is really low-hanging fruit for her,” Stuart said. “These are things that could be easily corrected, and it’s frustrating. She needs to have a relationship with all seven members of the board, not just three or four.”

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