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MaryEllen Elia critics wish her well but are glad she’s gone

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Critics of former Hillsborough County School Supt. MaryEllen Elia are congratulating her on Monday’s announcement by the New York State Board of Regents that she will become that state’s education chief beginning July 6 — but they also maintain that they’re glad she’s no longer running their local district, the 8th largest in the nation.

“I wish her the best,” Board member April Griffin said on Monday night. “For the sake of the students, the families and the communities in New York.”

Griffin was perhaps Elia’s number one critic on the board over the years, leading Elia to passively campaign for her opponent in Griffin’s bid for re-election last year. Elia was seen at one point as having a front-lawn sign displayed in front of her house in support of  District 6 challenger Dipa Shah weeks before the election (an election that Griffin easily won, 65-35 percent). Griffin says she has no regrets about her advocacy to oust Elia from office.

“I still believe what we did was right, and if I had to wake up and do it again tomorrow morning and do it again, I would.”

Elia was fired in January as Hillsborough’s superintendent in a controversial 4-3 vote by the School Board, a vote that was criticized by the two leading newspapers’ editorial boards, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and members of the business community.

Elia is taking a slight cut in pay. Her new salary will be $250,000, a reduction from the $280,000 annual take in Hillsborough. She also took home more than a million dollars in a buyout after her ousting in January.

The vote was controversial. Former County Commissioner Jan Platt told the Tampa Bay Times that she thinks the four board members who voted to oust Elia — Griffin, Cindy Stuart, Susan Valdes and Sally Harris, are political toast.  “I don’t think they have a prayer, not a chance of being re-elected after this,” she said.

Elia certainly has a CV that undoubtedly impressed the Board of Regents in New York. She was named Florida superintendent of the year last December and later became one of four finalists for national superintendent of the year.

But after a decade at the helm in Tampa, criticism mounted on a number of fronts. For nearly a year now the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has been investigating the district’s discipline policy, which critics allege disproportionately affects black students. There have been serious questions raised regarding the treatment of special-needs students, and questions from employees who said her management style was heavy-handed.

Patrick Manteiga was the leading print critic of Elia’s run as district head. The La Gaceta editor/publisher used his weekly column as a cudgel to run as a counterpoint to the pro-Elia pieces that dominated in the local media. He acknowledges that her ascension to leading New York State can fuel local criticism that the School Board erred in firing her.

“The role she’s taken is different than the one in the public school system,” Manteiga said Tuesday night, speaking at a political fundraiser. “She’s now helping school systems in New York to find the best way of doing things and pushing policy and things like that, so it might be a better fit for her. I wish her well”

Manteiga says there was nothing personal about his criticism, “just the fact that she kept a lid on things here in Hillsborough County, and some of those things we didn’t need a lid kept on. If you had a policy or an issue that you wanted to push forward and you were on the wrong side of MaryEllen, it didn’t move for 10 years. And that’s the best thing about changeover and moving people around.”

Although everything sounds wonderful right now that Elia is in New York, The Washington Post quotes Carol Burris, an award= winning New York-based principal as having this to say about the new chief.

“It is now apparent why the Board of Regents did not reach out to stakeholder groups and inform them that she was a candidate–if her support for merit pay, the Common Core, Gates Foundation grants,  the formulaic dismissal of teachers, and school choice were known, certainly there would have been an outcry from New York parents and teachers who have had more than their fill of test-based reforms.  The message of 200,000 Opt Outs has not been heard.”

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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