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Wednesday, Jul 30, 2014
Joe Henderson

Henderson: Hillsborough’s top two educators need a time out

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It might look like Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia scored a big victory over her most persistent critic Tuesday night, but I’m not sure anything has changed.

The school board’s decision to extend Elia’s contract over the strident objections of board Chairwoman April Griffin just means we could be in for another year of bickering and sniping from the county’s two most prominent educators. They really don’t like each other.

Unless ...

Elia and Griffin could call time out, take a deep breath and realize they’re stuck with each other for the foreseeable future. You might get better odds that Josh Freeman will ask Greg Schiano to join him for a weekend in Vegas before the superintendent and chairwoman would agree to detente, but I think they have it within them.

There are more than 200,000 students in the system, and there needs to be a truce of some kind. The status quo is becoming unseemly, and students always have to come first.

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Sometimes that gets lost in the noise, especially when Griffin and board member Susan Valdes have such obvious animosity toward Elia.

Both were criticized for the scathing marks they gave Elia on her annual evaluation, and giving the superintendent 1’s across the board — the lowest rating possible — was over the top. But I don’t necessarily agree with the statement of board member Carol Kurdell when she said in Wednesday’s Tribune, “I have never been more disappointed in the behavior of the board than I am now.”

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It takes two to tangle, and Elia was wrong with her swipe at Griffin during a meeting in July. She was overhead through an open microphone complaining to board attorney Tom Gonzalez because speakers in the public meeting were “beating us up.”

Elia is an occasionally brilliant woman and has guided the school system through some draconian financial situations, and I’m not saying she deserves to be fired. A little self-awareness wouldn’t hurt, though. According to Griffin, Elia has “demonstrated a complete lack of professionalism with staff members and board members by cussing, yelling and bullying.”

Board member Cindy Stuart probably came closest to hitting the target when she rated Elia a 2 (that’s not very good) for leadership in shaping school culture and human resource management.

Translation: Those who say the superintendent is bossy and dismissive with underlings may have a point.

Elia still enjoys support bordering on a grown-up crush from a majority of the board. Griffin is not going anywhere for at least another year, and maybe longer if she decides to run for re-election in 2014.

I’ll admit to believing a little chaos can be good.

I like it when board members bare their teeth if it’s appropriate. When smart people disagree on policy, it can lead to something better. I want them to ask uncomfortable questions, and I want them to hold whoever sits in the superintendent’s chair to the highest standard.

So work on it. Get better. Make sure the microphone is off the next time you have something snarky to say. Elia surely has the capacity to do all that.

Griffin does, too. Healthy debate is good, but what we have seen isn’t healthy for anyone. The school system is better off with these two people of extraordinary skill working together. It might seem impossible, but hey, we can dream.

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