Sunday, February 8, 2015

Blunder of the Year? On Jay Mathews Op Ed in the Washington Post

MaryEllen Elia, former Superintendent of HCPS credit TBO
On February 1st, Mr. Mathews' op ed,  Blunder of the year? Hillsborough County, Fla., board fires acclaimed superintendent was published in Washington Post's local education section. Mr. Mathews, who disclosed he has met, interviewed, and admired Ms. Elia, delivered a sharp, critical essay including conjecture on hidden motivations the Hillsborough county school board may have had to fire her. He only mentions the clearly stated official reasons the board voted to terminate Ms. Elia's contract in the following manner:
"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?"

In order to put perspective on Ms. Elia's departure from her job let me post some detail that is also rather oddly reported by Mr. Mathews.  If you  Google 'MaryEllen Elia salary' the first result you'll see is this:
  1. "Superintendent MaryEllen Elia's contract was terminated Tuesday in a 4-3 vote by the school board. The total payout to Elia will be $1.1 million, which includes her $280,000 annual salary for the next two and a half years. Her last day is March 5. She will then use her vacation time until June.Jan 20, 2015" 
The reason I'm saying his reporting is odd to me is because he takes this contract termination and states that the school board was fiscally irresponsible in terminating her as well. I believe when I explain some details about the school board's actions, readers might just say " res ipsa loquitur (Latin for "the thing itself speaks")  and the actions of the Hillsborough county school board might make more sense.

I'm just going to expand on two points Mr. Mathews combines into a sentence in order to make things more apparent.  "The board members said racial disparities and services for special education students needed to be addressed..."

Marilyn Williams, Former HCPS educator, credit WTSP news
First, Mr. Mathews fails to provide detail on what is meant by racial disparities.  This very important detail is that Hillsborough County Public Schools, of which,  Ms. Elia has been Superintendent for 10 years, is the subject of an Office of Civil Rights Complaint you can read about here and here. The complaint details extensive and statistically significant disparities in the way students of color in general and African American male students in particular are disciplined, thereby demonstrating that HCPS is depriving a disproportionately large number of these students of an education.  This complaint points to troubling discrepancies in the policies HCPS established under Ms. Elia's direction. They give evidence of complete lack of understanding of the needs of minority students in her school district. The complaint alludes to violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1965.   When this detail is included in Mr. Mathews essay, it clarifies the school board's position.

The nature of this civil rights complaint makes Ms. Elia's award for  2015 Florida Superintendent of the Year disturbing, particularly as Florida is also the state where Kiera Wilmot,  an African American honor student,  was arrested, expelled from school, and charged with felonies because she prepped for a science fair by mixing a little toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil in a soda bottle. Florida has privatized prisons, and when the purpose of prisons becomes generating a profit, the implications of a school district that has such disparities in disciplinary policies should deeply concern us all.

HCPS Student Discipline Statistics credit WTSP news
Florida is also the State where George Zimmerman pursued and killed Trayvon Martin against police orders and did not answer for it. Florida is where  Michael Dunn, the man who shot and killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis, thought it was okay to walk over to a car in a public place and shoot at unarmed Black teens in it because he didn't like their music.  Florida has some very frightening standards where African American youth are concerned.

Let me also expand on the second detail Mr. Mathews mentions. When he says "services for special education students need to be addressed"  the missing detail is that what is happening is special education students are dying in Hillsborough county public schools. You can read about the deaths, and the human and fiscal price paid for the negligence involved by the school district on Ms. Elia's watch here.  In fact all the special education students who have died during Ms. Elia's watch were also either African American or Hispanic. The deaths escalated because HCPS, under Ms. Elia's leadership, failed to make policy changes that could have averted further harm to students.  A student who was not a special needs student but had a medical emergency and died has paid the price for HCPS's lack of vigorous action to insure the safety of their students in general, and special needs students in particular. The latest lawsuit, by the parents of the late Keith Coty, can be read about both on this blog and here . HCPS has been fiscally impacted from wrongful death settlements as well. This detail adds context to the board decision on the urgency to seek a contract termination settlement.  These sorts of details are very critical to an op ed in the venerable Washington Post. So I'm disappointed the details weren't in this one.

screen shoot of the Dept of ED OCR website credit WTSP news
MaryEllen Elia, fired Superintent of Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida is a finalist for National Superintendent of the Year. She received her 2015 Florida Superintendent of the Year award from Hillsborough County  two days after being fired as if none of what went wrong in her school district during her 10 year tenure mattered.  I am trying to understand how this can happen. The details of Ms. Elia's stewardship belie the conjecture in Mr. Mathews' essay that "school boards tend to resent successful superintendents." The school board is attempting to take actions to rectify the damage done to hundreds of children, a demand made on them by the angry parents of the community they serve and the OCR of the US. Department of Education. I was surprised the Washington Post's fact checking team didn't catch these missing details, even in an opinion piece, before allowing an essay to disparage an entire school board.

The disparity between the selection criteria for National Superintendent of the Year and the reality of the state of Hillsborough County Publics Schools under Ms. Elia's watch is extremely unsettling. Mr. Mathews did not make this clear in his essay and that is hurtful to special needs families following the deaths of HCPS special needs students across America. The lives of our children matter, and when we put them in the hands of our schools we expect our children to be safe.

I am also a woman of color and and activist for intersected populations, so the board's own statistics about how HCPS is disciplining African American male students is sending alarm bells to me and my fellow activists. We can only hope that the independent task force and the Department of Education's Office of Civil rights can turn things around for HCPS students of color.

Now that I have provided details that Mr. Mathews' essay did not, I believe the actions of the state of Florida and the  Hillsborough County are not clear at all and we all need to understand why Ms. Elia is in the running for National Superintendent of the Year.

But the actions of the Hillsborough County School Board are clear, and we all now understand why Ms. Elia's contract might have been terminated. Details are everything.

 Res ipsa loquitur.


For an explanation of what the school to prison pipeline means, and how race based disparities in discipline resulting in expelling black male students from schools are a large link in this pipeline, see the infographic below.

Are our children being pushed into prison infographic  credit PBS

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