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Hillsborough names new school chief

The Hillsborough School Board voted unanimously to name facilities chief MaryEllen Elia the district's first female superintendent.

Published May 19, 2005

TAMPA - Hillsborough School Board members stuck with the familiar Thursday, choosing facilities chief MaryEllen Elia to be the first female superintendent of the nation's ninth-largest school district.

Elia, who has never been a principal or superintendent, immediately set an ambitious agenda that keyed into the board's top goals. She pledged to redouble efforts to eliminate the achievement gap and to take every possible step to meet the incessant growth that fills schools faster than the district can build them.

"The board had some excellent candidates," said Elia, 56, who won a unanimous vote on the first ballot. "The issues that I think are most important right now - the issues of student achievement and growth - are issues that I've had experience with."

Before taking over the construction and maintenance department in 2003, Elia led the district's secondary education division. She also created a widely acclaimed magnet school system.

Board members credited Elia, a 19-year district veteran, with developing relationships with other government entities.

"This wasn't because she was a woman, though I think a woman's perspective is a value," said Candy Olson, chair of the six-woman, one-man board. "This person is the best person. The relationships she's built over years with all levels of people in our community, that speaks for itself."

Rumors have swirled for months that the fix was in for an insider. Earlier in the week, board member Jennifer Faliero pointedly asked Hillsborough assistant superintendent Michael Grego, another finalist, whether he was the "chosen one" to replace retiring schools chief Earl Lennard.

He said no.

Elia, meanwhile, deflected questions about whether she benefited from a "good old boy" system.

"I am the anthesis of the good old boy system," she said.

The board needed little time Thursday to pare the five-candidate field to Elia and Grego.

Detroit schools CEO Kenneth Burnley withdrew his name moments before the board convened. Miami-Dade deputy superintendent Sonia Diaz impressed board members with her knowledge, but apparently rubbed some the wrong way with what were deemed "prima donna" traits.

Former New Orleans superintendent Anthony Amato did not get enough votes to move ahead.

Elia and Grego sat tensely in their usual meeting chairs, hands folded, as board members began to discuss their preferences. When vice chairwoman Carolyn Bricklemyer joined the chorus leaning toward a candidate with experience in construction and instruction, Elia gave up trying to not smile.

Grego sank into his chair. He later congratulated Elia and offered his support.

Board members expressed no concern that they ran a national search that ended with a leader they've known for years. The district has not hired an outsider as superintendent since 1967.

See tomorrow's Times or for the full report.

[Last modified May 19, 2005, 17:45:03]

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