When you meet Washington-area school board members, give them a warm smile and a kind word. They wrestle with complex issues, boring meetings and ill-tempered constituents, yet by and large they do good jobs. In the 40 years I have been watching them, only once or twice have they made a mistake as senseless and catastrophic as what the Hillsborough County, Fla., school board just pulled off.
Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, has much in common with some of our local districts. Its 205,000 students make it the eighth-largest district in the United States, not far ahead of Fairfax, Montgomery, and Prince George’s counties, all of which are in the top 20. Hillsborough is ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, and it is full of parents with great ambitions for their children.
It also has had some great superintendents, particularly the most recent holder of that office, MaryEllen Elia, 66. Since her appointment in 2005, she has built a national reputation as a warm, smart leader who has produced some of the most academically challenging schools in the country and has found ways to raise achievement even for low-income children. She is highly praised as a manager, even though she had never served before as a superintendent and — unlike any other leader of a big district I know — had previously spent 19 years as a classroom and reading teacher.
Two months ago, she was named 2015 Florida Superintendent of the Year. State Sen. Bill Montford told reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek of the Tampa Bay Times that “she’s a superintendent’s superintendent. They all look to MaryEllen not just for advice, but for counsel.” Admirers noted her humor, candor and bipartisan ties. With union leaders, she worked out a teacher compensation plan that allowed exceptional new hires to climb the salary ladder fast. Teachers union president Jean Clements called it “reliable, valid, fair and easy to understand.”
Yet two weeks ago, her school board fired her on a 4-3 vote.
“In political and business circles,” Tampa Bay Times reporter Marlene Sokol reported, the reaction to the board’s decision “has been overwhelmingly negative. The prevailing wisdom was . . . that a board majority was being petty, and that the move was rash, costing taxpayers more than $1 million to break her contract.”
The board members said racial disparities and services for special education students needed to be addressed and that Elia should have worked more closely with community members. One board member complained that she had not involved the board enough in a recent teacher-appreciation video.
School board members often resent superintendents who have been successful and in office a long time. Elia’s 10-year tenure is unusual. Top school leaders often relieve tension by accepting other job offers. But Elia was not a career superintendent. She was a teacher at heart, emotionally invested in the children of her district, so why move?
I interviewed Elia two years ago for a book about AVID, short for Advancement via Individual Determination, the nation’s largest and, I think, most effective college prep program. AVID is loved by teachers but hard for many superintendents to understand because it uses an unusual conceptual approach — teaching kids to ask questions. As a reading specialist, Elia understood the value of that emphasis and created more AVID classes than any other U.S. district.
Washington-area school boards seem more tolerant of good superintendents. Loudoun County superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III did a great job for 23 years, and his board let him. He retired last year.
The board members who ousted Elia may suffer from school board maladies that are too common — jealously, cowardice and ignorance of what helps children learn. She won’t have any trouble finding work, but the people who fired her will soon discover what our local school boards already know: how difficult it is to replace someone that effective.