Two school board members want Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia to change leadership or change jobs

02/18/14 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: Isabella Huererra, Hillsborough County Schools, April Griffin, Susan Valdes, MaryEllen Elia


Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Mary Ellen Elia touts high performing schools during a press conference last December.

photo by Janelle Irwin December 2013

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.

ESE Transportation Memo

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I am a reg ed driver, an many of times. we are asked to cover a run, for ese. we are giving no information on the children we are transporting, other then a passenger list. ( maybe )

I am an ESE driver and had a red alert run that was taken away from me by Laura Hill and given to a reg Ed driver who only has 2 years. These children have asthma and several other issues. Her bus had NO AIR AND NO SEATBELTS. They sent her all the way from Plant City to take my run I'd had for 3 years. And, when the parents started calling to complain Mr. Franklin and Cimino's principle explained away the issue and swept it under the rug.

I am an ESE driver and had a red alert run that was taken away from me by Laura Hill and given to a reg Ed driver who only has 2 years. These children have asthma and several other issues. Her bus had NO AIR AND NO SEATBELTS. They sent her all the way from Plant City to take my run I'd had for 3 years. And, when the parents started calling to complain Mr. Franklin and Cimino's principle explained away the issue and swept it under the rug.


It is terrible management, from Mary Ellen Elia , mr Franklin rate down the line, I drive a bus that is 21 yrs old. Have had many break problems with this bus since August 2013, it had been into the shop, which each time was told nothing is wrong with the bus! 2 weeks ago the breaks locked up again, I called my supervisor and told her I wouldn't drive it anymore someone was going to get killed in that bus, as it is not SAFE to transport students in! She said ok, she found me a bus to drive it had doe yesterday, they gave me back the bus with the break problems, when I tried to refuse that bus, they told me my supervisor said I HAD too drive it! I tried calling my supervisor, she didn't answer and I have left 2 messages, with no return calls! We are all so over worked, by the shortness of bus drivers, the morale is so low, no one gets along. They use for coverage the same drivers over and over,until they are ready for a break down. Also a driver got hurt on the bus, they made her work at Harney rd, as light duty, if she needed to stay home for w/c she has to use he sick hours! Which I know that is against the LAW!! Please help us!! We need new management!

I've been with transportation since July of 2000. I left for a few months because my husband worked out of town. I make the same pay rate as a driver that has been driving since only 2010. How do you explain this? I go to work every day and don't miss a lot of work and this is the thanks I get. What needs to happen is when you raise the starting pay the employees you already have need to be matched. People that have been a loyal employees need to know that they are appreciated.

Oh wow! The list is endless! We drivers can go on and on about the injustices (changing our runs,supervisors, safety personnel) safety issues (broken buses, never fixed, ROACHES, required to stay with broken down buses for hours with no pay reimbursement, shortage of under paid mechanics), morale issues (everyone Hates everyone anymore, the county is only out for themselves, no one stands behind you), pay shortages (how we work for 10 days, get paid nine, and just TRY to figure out that paycheck). It's about time all this came out to the public. We have all these "new" rules to follow, like No fueling in between runs. Try fueling all the buses at one time, our "hour a day' for that and the piles of paperwork adds up fast. Transportation wants us to know our kids and present a happy face daily. But when they yank our runs that we've had for YEARS, right out from underneath us for NO reason, it presents a problem. We don't know the new kids, and the new driver doesn't know our kids. DUH! How is that safe for anyone? Drivers need to have more input on changes before they are entered into the computer, we know what will and will not work out here on these roads. Any more questions? Just ask us, we will be more than happy to answer them. Let's get some Personality back in this department and get rid of the management that no one can communicate with.

I have been a bus driver for 15 yrs . I dont know where to begin, I enjoy working here but with all the extra runs and the break downs of the bus' staying with them for hours waiting for a mechanic to show up with no additional pay. Let alone the minimum of 4 hours you wait for grease day then they shop tells you to get a a spare bus. And you dont have time to go home and get lunch before your next run. Everyone having to drive a school bus older than 20+ yrs when they have plenty other buses on the lot to use. I had back issues and had to be out for low back surgery was oyt for three months when I got back I asked if my supervisor if I could get a air ride seat and she said no I then went to John Franklin and explained my situation and he told me that I was assigned that bus and that is the one I had till the end of the school year. Its just a air seat I told him I love my job but the bus that I have is beating me to death and killing my back, and trying to get ahold of my supervisor calling her several times she must be screening her calls she wont answer and you can leave multiple messages and still no call back. The only way to catch her is go to the office announced and maybe catch her. . I am going to the office again on Monday hoping to meet up with her and just hopefully find this Mr.Holmes maybe he can help me. But if I get no help I will have no other choice but resign my position as a bus driver, I hope it doesnt come to that as bad as they need drivers hopefully it wont.