Two school board members want Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia to change leadership or change jobs listen02/18/14 Janelle Irwin
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At least two Hillsborough County School Board members want Superintendent MaryEllen Elia to either change the way she leads the district or get out of the way. April Griffin has a long history of clashes with Elia since taking office in 2009, but the zeal gained speed after reports started surfacing from employees who claim they were told not to document transportation-related incidents among students with special medical needs.
“A child on a bus was in a wheel chair and was not properly strapped in and Isabella Huererra kept playing over and over in my head and I said to myself, have we learned nothing from that experience.”
Griffin is referring to a seven-year old student who died on a school bus in 2012. The district is being sued by the victim’s family. An event last month mirrored the Huererra tragedy and was observed by two training specialists, Juanita Juarez and Corie Holmes. Holmes, along with Juarez and two others, has launched a public attack on the district’s transportation department.
This kid was so medically fragile that we didn’t even know if he was breathing. That’s how bad it was. While sitting in the wheelchair, his head was touching his feet.”
The child is what the district considers “red alert,” meaning he has significant medical issues that require special attention and training. But the school bus driver didn’t even know what “red alert” meant, let alone have the proper training to deal with such a child. Holmes’ outrage was combined with incidents in which bus drivers were being allowed to transport children even with poor test results and several red flags like failing CDL licensing requirements. But when Holmes spoke to his supervisor, Rebecca Stringfield, her response shocked him.
“She, quoted, 'you will not document that and you will not put that in writing because the media and all this stuff.' and I basically told her, 'over my dead body, I will put it in writing.'”
We were unable to reach Stringfield this afternoon. According to Holmes, the widespread issues within the school district’s transportation department have been ongoing since at least the 2007/2008 school year and include more than just safety risks. Drivers are evaluated, in part, on the cleanliness of the bus they drive, but the county’s wash station has been closed for nearly two years. Last week School board members voted 6-1 to hire a consulting firm to evaluate the department at a cost of about $40,000.
“I have no faith at this point in what staff is telling me that we have or we don’t have because it seems like there’s just a covering up of stuff.”
That’s school board member Susan Valdes. The problems within transportation are so far isolated to supervisory staff within the department. But Valdes says the problem likely stems from the very top – with Superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
“I’ve made it known publicly that I have no confidence in her ability to lead this district. I have made that comment not once, but twice.”
And she’s not alone. Former board chair April Griffin has been making her rounds through the media criticizing Elia.
“I think there needs to be either a change in the leadership style that we currently have or their needs to be a change in leadership.”
Among other concerns, Griffin has grown frustrated with the superintendent’s leadership because what she describes as many Hillsborough County Schools employees have told her they were instructed by supervisors not to give information to school board members.
“She absolutely denies that she has anything to do with the culture that exists in the district where people are afraid to talk to board members.”
Griffin suspects that Elia is intentionally creating a culture by which supervisors in various departments are being actively discouraged from sharing information with the publicly elected school board.
“Mary Ellen Elia is appointed by the board and she has created a culture where by she has to control any information that comes out of that district and she wants to know if a school board member’s on campus, if they request any information and sometimes we don’t get it. If we do get it, it comes through her office.”
Griffin says if Superintendent Elia is instructing subordinate staff to withhold information from board members, it’s illegal.
“By Florida statute, it is a requirement that school board members be given any information they deem necessary to do their job unless otherwise prescribed by law.”
Holmes, the transportation training specialist who has come forward publicly alleging mismanagement within his department, signed off on a 17-page memo outlining potential problems. Three of his colleagues did too. Included in that memo is a signature page that was found on a printer asking Holmes not to discuss allegations with anyone and not to retaliate. Holmes says he was never given the document to sign and the supervisor named on it, Rebecca Stringfield, denied knowing anything about it. He thinks it was left out intentionally to make him look bad among other employees. Holmes also agrees that this sort of action is a direct result of a tone set by Superintendent Elia.
“Because why would a supervisor, knowing the ESE issues and concerns that exist, say that?”
And as for retaliation, Holmes claims he’s the one being singled out.
“Since that day, it’s been hell for me because I went against my supervisor.”
School board member Griffin has also publicly criticized the superintendent for refusing to change the way she is evaluated. Griffin claims there was a consensus during off-the-record conversations that Elia was amenable to changes, but during a public meeting, Elia said no. Now Griffin is asking any employees who come to her with concerns to do so on the record. And Susan Valdes, who wants Elia fired unless she changes her leadership style, is doing the same thing.
“Everything that I’m questioning is in a memorandum form. Everything that I want a response of has got to be on paper.”
Superintendent Elia did not respond to an interview request. A spokesperson, Stephen Hegarty, said the district is investigating allegations.