Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia is a hard-charging leader who can be impatient, defensive and not always as deferential to some School Board members as they would like.
But she’s done an impressive job, helping to make Hillsborough one of the most respected school districts in the South, if not the nation, during difficult times.
She deserves to have her contract extended when School Board members discuss the matter at their Tuesday meeting.
The discussion could be heated. Board Chair April Griffin and member Susan Valdes gave Elia the lowest possible rank across the board in their scored evaluations.
The other five members were more discerning — and positive — and Elia’s evaluation totals still make for a “satisfactory” ranking, which normally would justify the contract extension.
But it is apparent Elia, who was appointed superintendent in 2005, has lost the confidence of the two board members. Her relationship with Griffin is particularly strained.
Consensus building may not be Elia’s strong point and even some supportive members urged her to improve communications efforts in their evaluations.
Griffin makes some legitimate, if overheated, points in the criticism contained in her evaluation form.
But it is impossible to take the rock-bottom rankings seriously, given that Hillsborough students consistently perform well, and the district is widely recognized as the most innovative and proactive in the state.
It’s true, this past year has been the most difficult during Elia’s tenure. Last October, an 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome wandered away from a physical education class at Rogers Middle School and drowned in a retention pond. The prior January a 7-year-old disabled girl on a school bus died after choking, an emergency for which school officials seemed ill-prepared.
Griffin, understandably, remains furious she was not informed of the January death until the following fall. The administration did seem slow and defensive when initially responding to these tragedies.
Yet Elia did take a number of vigorous steps to improve the quality and training of those overseeing special-needs students.
Elia definitely can be faulted here, but such lapses hardly characterize an administration that oversees more than 250 schools and 200,000 students.
Moreover, under Elia the school district is in solid shape, academically and financially.
She has consistently made tough cuts to spare impacts on students and teachers. The district endured $160 million in state cuts over the past five years without teacher layoffs or pay cuts. In fact, teachers have received raises three of five years.
This was a result of Elia aggressively curtailing costs as soon as the economy tanked, streamlining the administration and taking such unpopular but cost-effective steps as making high school teachers give up some planning time.
The administration has put the $100 million Gates Foundation grant to good use, developing a teacher evaluation and merit-pay system. A mentoring program to help new teachers is credited with increasing the teacher retention rate from 72 percent to 94 percent in two years.
Indeed, Hillsborough is the district educators from around the state often look to for best practices.
Elia can sometimes bull ahead without enough attention to niceties or the views of others.
But she also has a complete command of education issues and the district’s needs, and executes her job with energy and commitment.
School Board members needn’t be reluctant to point out areas where they believe Elia can improve, but they should see she is the right person for the job.