Making Sense of the Hillsborough County School Board Tension

school leadership isn't personal

[Disclosure: I have no personal or professional relationship with anyone associated with the Hillsborough County Schools. Any opinion expressed here is the direct result of disinterested inquiry.]

The Hillsborough County School Board has gotten some publicity over the last few days – and not the good kind.

With a new school year underway, HCSB held a teamwork training session this week for its members. The activities were meant to develop the professional relationships that, in theory, make a school board a cohesive governing body. It went sour.

Letitia Stein of the St. Petersburg Times sets the stage:

School Board member Jennifer Faliero told colleague April Griffin to change her style and “learn to swallow your medicine.” If not, Faliero said, she’ll become a maverick on the losing end of votes.

As other board members chimed in concerns about her defensiveness, Griffin retorted, “I’m not buying what you’re saying.”

“Then you need to resign,” Faliero shot back.

Amid cries for a “time out,” Griffin stormed out of the training exercise.

Griffin was especially bothered by a call for her resignation from a Board member who, as I’ll explain later, is no stranger to a contempt for the law worthy of resignation herself.

But this is more than an emotionally-charged spat; it’s an instructive example for how to think – and how not to think – about school district governance.

The Hillsborough Board, from what we can see and read, has further separated into two camps following the evaluation of Superintendent MaryEllen Elia. Griffin and Susan Valdes were critical of Elia’s performance; the other 5 members, including Faliero, weighed in with overwhelming support. The problems here, however, are less political than with members’ differing commitments to serving the district.

Take a moment to glance at the recent 8-page evaluation of Elia’s performance [Adobe PDF, 8 pages, link opens in new window]. It consists of a scoring rubric on various elements of her leadership, then a collection of board members’ comments on those elements. Though Faliero has cried foul and subtly characterized Griffin as a mean-spirited rogue, the proof is in the PDF.

The comments for “Standard VIII. Values and Ethics of Leadership” demonstrate not only Griffin’s commitment to moving beyond finger-pointing to solve a problem, but also the indifference of other board members:

[Jack] Lamb: You know where she stands and why.

[Doretha] Edgecomb: The Superintendent models leadership that is ethical and acts in a professional manner that demonstrates a respect for others and an understanding of statutory standards that must be adhered to for operating a responsive, ethical and caring district.

[April] Griffin: The School Board has “…any power except as prohibited by law…” (F.S. 1001.32 (2)) and may adopt policy or procedure (F.S. 1001.43 (10)) while the Superintedent’s powers are either to advise or recommend to the Board (1001.49 (2), 1001.49 (3), 1001.49 (4), 1001.49 (5)) while providing “general oversight” of the district operations in order to identify problems so that the Superintendent may make additional recommendations as needed (1001.49 (1)). F.S. 1001.51, in describing the Superintendent’s duties, continues the trend of not providing discretionary decision-making authority, instead vesting in the Superintendent’s power and influence in her ability to advise and sway the Board. Based on numerous conversations and “events” I do not believe that MaryEllen shares this interpretation of Florida School Law. I find this most troubling as I believe that this misalignment is the source of many of the challenges that I have cited in this performance evaluation.

[ed. - Comments from other Board members did not appear in this section of the document and, presumably, were not submitted.]

Though one may not agree with Griffin’s criticism of Superintendent Elia, there is no question that her reasoning has a solid foundation; she demonstrated that by explaining herself in full and citing relevant statutes to support her argument. This is what we expect from our elected officials: clear, transparent views supported by evidence. Board member Carol Kurdell accused Griffin of “disengaging” from Board meetings, but Griffin’s comment above – and plenty of open, honest admissions on her website – demonstrates both purposeful engagement and a sound commitment to problem-solving.

We expect that an elected Board member overseeing a district with 203,000 students and over 25,000 personnel would provide a full explanation for his or her actions. We don’t expect a single, incomplete sentence better suited to a comment on a Myspace profile than to a public, District-wide report for a major school system – and we certainly don’t expect to see no comment at all.

One need not be on this Board to understand how these differences in accountability, transparency and “vision” – one of the things Tuesday’s teamwork building episode was supposed to heal – could manifest itself into real tension.

Valdes commented to Faliero that the call for Griffin’s resignation was, “below the belt,” to which Faliero responded:

“I don’t feel it was below the belt,” Faliero said. “I feel it was a candid comment based on an assessment.”

“You’ve got to earn your way,” Faliero added. “You’ve got to earn your respect and you’ve got to learn how to work in the system.”

Griffin fired back that she wasn’t elected to “go along to get along.”

That’s because April Griffin understands that she was elected to serve a large school system responsibly, a mission that can’t be clouded by a selfish, immature focus on emotional outbursts.

Faliero needs to realize that, as a recent self-help book advised readers to remember, “it isn’t all about you.” Disagreement and contentious debate – which sometimes can become angry – isn’t about the individual personalities involved. It’s about those 203,000 students, 25,000 employees and the nearly 1.2 million who make up its taxpayer base. Public servants in municipalities as small as Cooperstown and as large as Hillsborough County need to commit fully to their constituents – and that means realizing that their individual sensibilities are far less important than the community that you serve.

If one needs an anecdotal Hollywood example of this principle in action, consider the scene in Lean on Me in which Dr. Frank Napier argues ferociously with Eastside High Principal Joe Clark. What follows the highly emotional argument? “Alright, let’s go get something to eat.”

If Hollywood understands that school leadership isn’t personal, members of the Hillsborough School Board are certainly capable of understanding, too. As education technology specialist Scott McLeod has asked, “Are we doing what is best for our students, or are we doing what is convenient for us?” Words like “comfortable” and “easy” can be substituted for “convenient,” and the simple answer given to that question would speak volumes about a Board member’s attitude toward school governance.

In short, Faliero needs to grow up and act like the secure, professional adult that she was elected to be. And secure professionals who are devoted to their constituents don’t have unhinged outbursts.

But I can understand how Jennifer Faliero’s skin might be thinner this August than in years past. Last week the St. Petersburg Times reported that she had moved from the Hillsborough district that she was elected to represent as a result of her divorce – an allegation that she initially denied:

Faliero, who has enrolled her daughters in two of south Tampa’s best-regarded public schools, initially denied she was living there when questioned by the St. Petersburg Times.

A day later, she decided to share the details of a situation she acknowledges having tried to keep “under the radar.”

“My intent was not to leave the district, but I really had no choice but to find other places to live,” said Faliero, 44.

Faliero’s attendance this summer for Board meetings and functions has also been sparse:

Faliero has been notably absent at School Board meetings this summer. From July to mid-August, she missed five meetings and workshops – half of the last 10 scheduled.

The intent of raising these issues isn’t to embarrass Faliero or to exacerbate her difficulties in life. Any competent leader – and any competent follower – realizes that there are exceptions to rules. Extenuating and unfortunate circumstances happen. Faliero isn’t the first to undergo an unforeseen restructuring in her life and she won’t be the last. Even so, she does, as an elected public servant, need to be held accountable for the way that she handled the situation.

I have trouble imagining that anyone would punish Faliero for a temporary move based on the circumstances, but she had no reason not to be candid about her situation. A responsible leader is proactive and honest when such things arise; real leaders don’t sweep them under the carpet. As Pro on HCPS summarizes, Faliero moved discreetly, denied it to the press, admitted the truth when she was caught and then suggested that another Board member resign.

The Hillsborough County School Board has enjoyed easier times. As this scene plays out, Board members must remember that they are held accountable by their constituents and need to behave like responsible, professional adults who put the community first in their commitment to serving the District. Griffin has done this; hopefully others on the Board will follow suit.

To Ms. Griffin, I say, “Onward, Christian soldier.

And to keep the theme, I’ll deliver to Ms. Faliero a piece from the Gospel of Luke:…Physician, heal thyself.

UPDATE at 08.30.07, 9.41pm:

Stephen Downes has posted a lengthy response at his site HalfAnHour. I’ll respond as soon as I get some time to put my thoughts together.

The Wall, an unofficial blog designed to provide a forum for Hillsborough County School District employees, has posted a take on Faliero’s conduct. 

5 Responses to “Making Sense of the Hillsborough County School Board Tension”

  1. Having been seated across the table from Ms. Faliero on one occasion and Ms. Griffin on several occasions, I found Ms. Faliero to be superficial, self-serving, and untrustworthy. Ms. Faliero did a good job of pretending to listen, understand and care, only to stab us in the back at important Board meetings.

    Ms. Griffin was downright spooky on occasion, restating what she heard, asking penetrating questions that indicated she “got it” and often telling us what we didn’t want to hear but, that’s the way it was “for now.”

    I have a lot of respect for April Griffin. I also understand completely how someone with her passion and common sense can see through some of the downright stupid “workshops” a district employee must endure. Then, she suddenly becomes aware that she has been duped into becoming part of the charade she promised her voters she would stop and she did what anyone with integrity would do: get the hell out of there! A lesser person would have buckled under the peer pressure.

    Given my choice between a Board member who slams a few doors to establish her position and one who sneeks out of her neighborhood and hopes no one will find out she moved (so she can keep her board seat): gimme heavy duty door jams!

  2. I know nothing more about this dispute than what I’ve read here, but this post is a hatchet job.

    It is clear from the valuation, that while two members were critical of Elia’s performance, the remaining five were very strongly in support.

    You remark, “The problems here, however, are less political than with members’ differing commitments to serving the district.”

    But this isn’t shown at all in the post, no matter how many times you recite, pointlessly, “203,000 students and over 25,000 personnel.”

    The debate is whether Elia is working with the board, or contrary to the interests of the board. Griffin states repeatedly in her comments that “she (Elia) has been unyielding in her dealings with the Board.” But she has the support of the Board – the evaluation makes that clear. There’s no need to be ‘yielding’ because there’s no demand to be yielding – except from Griffin.

    Supporting your position, you cite an excerpt from the evaluations, saying “there is no question that her (Griffin’s) reasoning has a solid foundation; she demonstrated that by explaining herself in full and citing relevant statutes to support her argument.” And you comment that it shows, “also the indifference of other board members.”

    The small excerpt cited ay demonstrate indifference, but the much more detailed comments found in the full document displays anything but. Edgecomb in particular is volumous, and Olson discusses at length some areas of improvement.

    Moreover, though Griffin cites statutes, she doesn’t do so usefully. She states, for example, that it is the duty of the Superintendent to “cooperate” with the school board. This she has evidently done, to judge by the evaluation. Griffin’s argument succeeds only if *she* is the school board – but the statute does not apply to Griffin personally, but to the board taken as a whole.

    Griffin’s examples are petty. She complains that the Superintendent routinely presents only one option to the Board. She complains that, although implementation of a certain policy was stipulated in the contract, the Board should have been able to determine *how* the policy was implemented. Yet these – if they are actually a problem for the board (taken as a whole) are very easily dealth with by the board, which can simply vote to reject the proposal or to require two options. Griffin’s problem is with the other board members, but she is taking it out on the superintendent.

    It is also – I might add – very demeaning and unprofessional to refer to the superintendent by her first name throughout the evaluation. The complaints read like schoolyard whining. “MaryEllen has displayed a pronounced tendency to conceive a plan with her closest advisors…” “MaryEllen’s approach… can only be described as ‘meeting your own agenda.’” “MaryEllen must learn to forsee the challenges her recommendation may create…” “MaryEllen tends to promote her own vision…” This isn’t criticism. It’s pouting!

    The discussion, which occupies most of the second half of the post, of Jennifer Faliero relocation to another district, is so obviously off-topic that it reeks of a personal attack, whether or not you know any of the participants. It is irrelevant to the issue at hand and is introduced only to discredit one of the five people supporting the superintendent (that four untainted voices nonetheless remain is not considered in your post).

    I don’t know what the issues were, I don’t know what the 6/7 plan or FCAT are, and I might well line up against the Superintendent – and with Griffin – politically. I have no idea.

    But as I say, this post is not a fair treatment of the matter. It supports Griffin for no good reason – and the last coulple of lines suggest that the motivation was purely partisan, and not based in a reasonable assessment of the issues at all.

  3. Matthew says:


    I appreciate relaying your firsthand experience with these people; it’s a perspective that I obviously don’t have. I assume that there are others with firsthand experience that might differ; if they exist, I’d be interested in hearing about it.

    I am inclined to agree with you regarding leadership style. I have a difficult time justifying time relegated to trust falls and group hugs for adult professionals who have bigger fish to fry. Though I participate in full – and with a genuine smile – when I’m required to engage in these activities, I tend not to plan them when I’m in a position to do so.

  4. Matthew says:


    I appreciate such a complete comment. You’ve raised several points that I’d like to address and will do so when I can.

  5. This Tampa Tribune Editorial may add some insight into the comments, or lack there of, of the Board members.

    Bad Behavior On School Board Will Hold Hillsborough Back
    The Tampa Tribune

    Published: August 30, 2007

    Even the most patient school teacher would not stand for the bad behavior shown by some members of the Hillsborough County School Board.

    Temper tantrums and slamming doors. Snide remarks, innuendo and peer pressure.

    What is this, a junior high or the governing body of the nation’s ninth largest school district?

    The board’s split became clear in two recent events: Tuesday’s disastrous team-building workshop and the schizophrenic evaluation of Superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

    In both cases, the majority showed no clue about how to give honest, constructive feedback. And if board members can’t agree on where the district stands, how can they agree on where it needs to go?

    The board’s infighting gives the public little confidence that it can significantly improve outcomes. Given its poor high school graduation rate and the fact that most graduates must take remedial classes to enter a community college, Hillsborough’s school board needs a laser-like focus on improving the fundamentals.

    Yet a workshop meant to build relationships dissolved within an hour after April Griffin, the newest board member elected in November, said she lacked trust. Griffin had been criticized the previous week for questioning the process of appointing administrators.

    Veteran board member Candy Olson said ‘we all came in with things we wanted to change’ before understanding how the system works.

    Funny thing about this board. Senior members like to tell junior members how things work.

    Too often, their insight comes with a subtext of ‘back off.’

    When Jennifer Faliero first joined the board, she, too, complained about roadblocks, lines that couldn’t be crossed and a culture that perpetuates the status quo. Yet five years later, she led the charge in telling Griffin to change her style or ‘you need to resign.’

    Faliero, who has moved out of her district in violation of the law while she grapples with a divorce, was out of line. Elevating an argument to fever pitch does little to help the board help students.

    Following the rebuke, Griffin stormed out, slammed the door and never returned. While it’s understandable that she’d need a few minutes to compose herself, it was unprofessional to leave the meeting altogether. It raises questions about her ability to deal with adversity – a trait politicians need to succeed in public life.

    Faliero and Griffin clearly don’t like each other because of past political battles, but it is improper for them to carry this baggage into the boardroom.

    While Tuesday was messy, more concerning was the board’s wildly divergent evaluation of Elia.

    Griffin scored Elia so poorly that you would think she wanted the superintendent fired – though she joined her colleagues in unanimously voting to extend the superintendent’s contract.

    Meanwhile, Chairman Jack Lamb, member Carolyn Kurdell and Faliero gave the superintendent such over-the-top scores that they must have missed Elia’s missteps in changing school boundaries, altering high school teaching schedules, failing to administer performance reviews and selecting leaders for the transportation and purchasing departments.

    The evaluation – one of the most important documents the board produces all year – reflects neither Elia’s specific accomplishments nor the improvements needed. In his assessment, Lamb hardly completed a sentence. Only Doretha Edgecomb and Olson gave thoughtful, helpful insight.

    The community doesn’t want board members to act in lockstep. But it does want this board to get about the business of improving public education. To make it happen, members should leave their petty differences on the playground where they belong.”


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