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Insider, veteran pitch for superintendent job

The district worker and the superintendent field the School Board's gamut of question.

Published May 19, 2005

TAMPA - Heart and passion were the buzzwords Wednesday as the final two candidates for Hillsborough superintendent made their formal pitch for the job.

The interviews showcased the desire of an inside candidate with no superintendent experience, Hillsborough's chief of facilities MaryEllen Elia, and an outsider with 18 years of superintendent experience, New Orleans public schools chief Anthony Amato.

The two are among five finalists vying to replace Hillsborough superintendent Earl Lennard, who is retiring next month.

School Board members say they want someone who can make a good academic district great, keep pace with student growth and school construction and improve the business operations of the district.

Elia said she would come to the job well-equipped, with experience in both the education and business side of school leadership. She pointed to her implementation of magnet schools here in the early 1990s as one of her lasting successes.

Amato said he wants to build a long-term relationship with the community and school district. He said three of his children would attend Hillsborough schools.

The board could choose Lennard's replacement as early as today, or at a minimum, whittle the list, said chairwoman Candy Olson. If a final candidate is not selected, board members say they will do more background work and take a vote Wednesday.

During interviews Wednesday, the candidates were asked about student achievement, leadership, finance and collaboration. Here's what they said:

MaryEllen Elia

Elia, 56, has worked for the Hillsborough school district since 1986, first as a teacher and now as an administrator overseeing the building, renovation and maintenance of the district's schools.

She described herself as a results-oriented problem solver whose desire for the school chief's job has evolved through the years.

"I get the job done," said Elia, who also has run the district's secondary schools and nontraditional programs. "I'm fair, but I am tough. I do what I say I'm going to do."

When asked how her relationship with the seven-member board would work, Elia said it would be as a team. She said board members would not be faced with surprises, which they detest.

Elia mentioned the problems in choosing a new site last year for the Carver Exceptional Center. The school for emotionally disturbed students was to be built in a neighborhood filled with strip clubs, peep shows and X-rated video stores. A new site was found after opponents, including Hillsborough County Commissioner Kathy Castor, spoke out.

Elia, who oversees the process of finding land for new schools, said she was warned by a School Board member about the questionable location and it came "back to haunt me," she said. "That won't happen again. I learned my lesson."

She said the school district can take itself from good to great by getting people outside the main administration building to buy into larger goals. She said one major challenge will be increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of teachers and students.

"To get us to great, I think we have to face issues such as diversity as a value in this district," Elia said. "When you say every child, mean every child. That is a value that needs to be embraced by everyone."

Elia told the board they had great candidates to choose from but she would be the best of the field.

"The difference is in your mind and your heart and what you can bring to the position," said Elia, who appeared to choke up. "I can do that for you."

Anthony Amato

Amato, 58, is stepping down June 30 after two years as superintendent of New Orleans Public Schools. Before that, he led school districts in Hartford, Conn., and New York City. He has been a superintendent since 1987.

He told board members he and the New Orleans School Board agreed he should move on after five new members took office in January. He said the board was ready to move in a different direction.

Amato said he and the board got off on the wrong foot, largely because of a new state law that gave the New Orleans superintendent more power. That put him and the board at odds.

He said he also encountered significant financial problems that remain under investigation. "I'd have to say nefarious forces were at work," he said.

Amato, who had clearly done his homework, said he applied for the Hillsborough job because he thinks it is one of the nation's best school districts.

He offered the board several recommendations.

He encouraged the school district to provide teachers paid professional development training instead of having them take it on their own time. He said the school district should increase its use of technology in the classroom. He also suggested taking steps to keep the county's poorest children from concentrating in the same schools now that court-ordered desegregation has ended.

"We have to have more equity, more diversity, throughout the district," Amato said. By allowing poor children to concentrate in the same schools, "You're almost condemning those schools to fail."

Two board members questioned Amato's statements, asking him if he was too autocratic.

"How well will you take input from the board?" board member Jack Lamb said. "It looks like you're a one-man show."

Amato said his tendency is to make recommendations, but that he would work with the board to reach its goals.

"I'm a soldier who will go out there and make (your wishes) happen," he said.

Amato highlighted several of his successes, including helping the New Orleans School District surpass the state average on student test scores for the first time.

In meetings around the community Wednesday, Elia said her top priority would be eliminating the gap in student achievement. She highlighted her varied work experience.

"I can see both sides of the district," Elia told a crowd of more than 30 people at Armwood High. "I've had experience with growth (and) certainly with student achievement."

Amato told about 25 people at Blake High School about the steps he has taken to get the best teachers into the most challenging schools. He cited bonus pay, increased mentoring and establishing career paths for new educators.

"This is not your garden variety teacher anymore," he said. "This is a very different teacher."

* * *

The three other superintendent candidates are Hillsborough assistant superintendent Mike Grego, 47; Detroit public schools chief executive Kenneth Burnley, 63; and Miami-Dade schools deputy superintendent Sonia Diaz, 57.

Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at 727 892-2273 or

[Last modified May 19, 2005, 00:42:10]

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