School Board Terminates Superintendent’s Contract


Photo I. Hanewicz

Elia supporters at an earlier school board meeting when the board voted to terminate Elia’s contract.

Isabel Hanewicz, RHStoday Editor-in-Chief

A sea of red supporters was not enough to deter Hillsborough County School Board members from voting 4-3 in favor of terminating Superintendent MaryEllen Elia’s contract at the board meeting Tuesday, January 20. 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 from her contract, which comes with an estimated $1.1 million cost, 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 reason need for change.

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

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

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 70 people came out to speak 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 who urged the board to reconsider the motion.

“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 the a National Superintendent of the Year.

“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 and others spoke of the graduation rate of blacks, especially black males, calling the district a “school to prison pipeline” for blacks.

Susan Parks, a mom 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,” Parks 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 be a Goliath,” said Patty to the board. “Have the courage to do the right thing.”

The opponents of Valdes’s 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. “[But] we will survive, we will last beyond this crisis.”

With the result came shock from the rest of the boardroom as well, as teachers and Elia supporters 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.”