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Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: School board war of words gets down in the gutter

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Published:   |   Updated: January 30, 2014 at 07:14 AM

The animosity between Hillsborough Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia and board member April Griffin is becoming the stuff of legends. I have known many public servants in our fair city who did not care for each other, but they were amateurs in animosity compared with these two.

Elia appears to believe Griffin is a petty troublemaker whose only agenda is to make her life miserable. Griffin appears to believe Elia is a dictatorial bureaucrat and bully who plays favorites just because she can.

They don’t like each other.

But their relationship hit depths even Dante couldn’t reach at a meeting Tuesday night. It all centered, not surprisingly, on how best to judge Elia’s job performance.

If it were solely up to Griffin, she would have fired the superintendent long ago. It is not, though, and for years a majority of the seven-member board has continued to back Elia, sometimes gushing as it does so.

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Griffin is persistent, though. She believed Elia might agree to revise the standards in use since 2005 to evaluate her performance. Griffin wants more measurable goals.

“I told her this would send a message to teachers that we hold you to the same standard we hold them to,” Griffin said.

They were set to explore it further when the superintendent decided she didn’t want any changes after all. So as the meeting was wrapping up, Griffin reacted to the public sandbagging by telling reporters Elia was “full of s---.”

These are supposed to be leaders in our school system. They are examples for impressionable minds. They are supposed to demonstrate how adults solve problems like, you know, adults. I am trying to imagine what would happen if a student told a teacher they were full of, um, you know.

Come to think of it, according to many of the teachers I speak with, that happens more than people realize. I won’t blame that lack of respect on the eternal steel cage match between two powerful public education figures, but I’m also sure it doesn’t help.

“I could have said it more professionally,” Griffin told me Wednesday, “but I don’t know that I regret it. Sometimes you can’t sugarcoat things. I stand by what I said.”

Griffin has announced she will not seek re-election when her term ends in November, so presumably the meetings will be more genteel. It’s about time.

What is unfortunate, though, is that Griffin’s original point about the evaluation got lost in the gutter description of her nemesis.

You may recall that last year she gave the superintendent the lowest evaluation she could. It didn’t stop Elia’s contract from being renewed, but it did draw attention to the fact that the criteria used to judge her performance aren’t exactly demanding.

Elia has a three-year deal at more than $270,000 a year, and it rolls over automatically to an extra year as long as she keeps getting good evals.

And, oh, there is this: Elia has the right to refuse any change in the way she is evaluated. It’s in her contract. I don’t think the same standard applies to the teachers and other employees, for what that’s worth.

I want her agent.

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The makeup of the school board will likely change markedly after the November election, and it’s probably time for that. Elia appears to have outlasted her rival, and maybe she won the political war, too.

Griffin’s public potty mouth was unbecoming, no matter the frustration level that set it off — just as Elia’s infamous open-mic criticism of Griffin at a meeting last summer was inappropriate.

Leaders have to behave better.

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