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Joe Henderson: Supporters of MaryEllen Elia now get chance for revenge at ballot box

Things really got nasty around the Hillsborough County School Board in early 2015. That’s when four of the seven members voted to fire Superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

They didn’t like her brusque and dismissive style. They felt Elia believed the board worked for her, not vice versa. The move was, to understate matters, highly controversial.

Oh, who am I kidding? I can think of few things the board has ever done that created the stir that did. Those who voted in favor of termination were vilified by many business and political leaders.

They were called the Mean Girls (all four were women) and worse.

They were accused of pettiness and jealousy.

Even The Washington Post weighed in, calling the decision “senseless and catastrophic.”

And in a torrent of online comments and letters to the editor, Elia’s supporters promised vengeance at the ballot box (more on that in a minute).

Now is their chance.

Two of the members involved in Elia’s ouster are up for re-election Aug. 30, so that time of reckoning has come. You know what? It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if both were handily re-elected. That’s how badly I believe opponents misread what the Elia decision was all about.

Susan Valdes, who was chairwoman the night Elia was sacked, probably has the toughest fight. The Tampa Bay Times endorsed her opponent, Bill Person, noting his ability to “provide equal education opportunities across the entire district.”

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That shouldn’t be dismissed. Voters often go to the polls with newspaper endorsements in hand for races where they might not be well-versed.

Valdes has a lot of friends, though, and has drawn praise for her efforts to improve opportunities for minorities. She has raised more than $35,000 in her re-election bid, more than three times the amount raised by Person.

Cindy Stuart is the other board member on the ballot now who voted against Elia. I honestly don’t see her spot in any danger. Stuart is just the kind of person who should be serving on the board — bright, inquisitive and fair-minded. She also has the Times’ endorsement.

Re-electing Valdes and Stuart would basically be the community’s final rebuke to those who argued that firing Elia would destroy Hillsborough schools.

Board member April Griffin, the most public and vocal Elia irritant, was overwhelmingly elected in November 2015 against a strong opponent. That’s the same election that brought in newcomer Sally Harris, who had promised to join the Elia opposition.

New superintendent Jeff Eakins has gone about methodically repairing much of the damage while dealing with a deep budget deficit driven largely by the school district’s commitment to a partnership program with Bill Gates long before he took over.

And Elia has more than landed on her feet. She took a job as State Commissioner of Education in New York.

We will soon know if those opposing her firing here can pull off the retribution they promised. Or, just maybe, there were just more people out there who thought it was a good idea.

 

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I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

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Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Renzo Downey, Rick Flagg, A.G. Gancarski, Joe Henderson, Janelle Irwin, Jacob Ogles, Scott Powers, Bob Sparks, Andrew Wilson.
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