Elia, who couldn't be reached for comment by the Tampa Bay Times for two straight days before the original story ran, wrote an op-ed piece on Saturday to pushback against the allegations.
As is always the case with Elia, her pushback is a mix of aggression and diverted responsibility:
Former Hillsborough County school Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said Friday she takes full responsibility for the district’s depleted reserve funds, but that doesn’t mean she was the only one who knew the money was dwindling.
In an op-ed column appearing in Saturday’s edition of The Tampa Tribune, Elia shot back against accusations that she kept school members in the dark while more than half of the district’s $360 million reserve fund was spent in just two years. She insisted that her replacement, Superintendent Jeff Eakins, and school board members were “fully aware” of the state of the reserves.
“The same Board members who routinely micromanaged and overstepped their roles, showed a peculiar lack of interest and lack of understanding of the larger financial issues,” wrote Elia, who landed a job as commissioner of education for the state of New York after being fired from the Hillsborough district in in January.
“My most vocal critics routinely failed to show up or cancelled meetings with me. Their lack of accountability is astounding.”
Here's what some of the board members said in the initial Tampa Bay Times article about how Elia hid the true picture of the district's finances:
Some board members said the budgets that were made public were difficult to understand and they did not get clear answers when they asked direct questions of Saunders and Elia.
"I tried to dig for information," said Harris, who ran for her board seat in 2014 and cast the tie-breaking vote to fire Elia. "But unless you are an expert, it's impossible to get a real budget and real figures."
Stuart, who often asked questions about spending, said she was stonewalled, and despite all her questions was as surprised as the others to learn about the spending issue.
"We had no idea. We honestly had no idea," she said. "We never got the full picture."
Stuart and Harris, who was elected to the board in September, both said they had trouble getting budget documents from Elia and her staff.
“When I ran for office I tried hard to get a copy of budget, because on the website its hidden, and when I got elected I asked for it and was told by the superintendent at the time there would be workshops on the budget and I would get it later, like it was a sidebar,” Harris said.
“We need to be surrounded by experts who know the details and how to dissect our budget — not just one person but several people.”
We have a she said/she said here between the board and Elia over Elia's disclosure of the district's finances.
Let's say we give Elia the benefit of the doubt here, since she was at odds with the board and claims they were out to get her.
The man who took over for Elia as district superintendent, Jeff Eakins, was deputy superintendent when Elia was running the district.
What does he have to say about the matter?
Looks like he says he didn't know about the dire financial situation either:
The school district’s reserve fund sat at $360 million about five years ago and shrank to about $230 million last school year. Eakins said he was “caught off guard” when he stepped into Elia’s position in June and learned the reserve fund is now at $150 million.
Eakins said he and others on the staff were “absolutely involved” in the budget process but didn’t expect reserve funds to be drawn down as they were.
“Not only was that alarming to me, but I felt like based on what I saw, some of that $150 million could be reduced even more because it’s caught up in recurring salary expenses.
Eakins said the district is investigating exactly where the money went, but most seemed to pay for a new teacher salary schedule that went into effect halfway through the 2013-14 school year.
Elia claims the Eakins charge is jive:
Elia wrote that this claim is “disingenuous or shows a lack of understanding of the budget.”
About 400 of the highest-paid teachers are scheduled to retire this year, she wrote, which should relieve the strain on a reserve fund that was largely built by cost-cutting measures she instituted.
“These are the kinds of things you learn, develop and understand when you start at 6 a.m.,” Elia wrote. “Did my spreadsheet get lost in transition?”
Eakins, who hasn't attacked Elia personally over this matter and still says nice things about her, disagreed with her reasoning:
The retiring employees will certainly help, Eakins said, “but when you make a budget for a large organization like this you have to plan on other things, not just money saved from single-level employees.”
Teachers aren’t always hired on a beginner’s salary, and the district has more expenses now than it did even last year, he said. The district is facing a growing student population, new construction, increasing health insurance costs, and the end of a seven-year, $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.
Elia’s severance package also cost an estimated $1.1 million in salary, benefits and unused vacation and sick leave.
Eakins said Elia is highly respected for her work in Hillsborough and New York, and is responsible for “many great things” in the school district.
He and the school board plan regular budget meetings with the finance staff to form a plan.
“All I can do coming in as a leader is address current challenges I have and move the district in positive direction,” Eakins said. “We’re facing a very real challenge — it’s not made up, it’s real — and we’re going to be very transparent, very proactive, and very clear on how we spend money moving forward. You aren’t going to see me pointing any fingers.”
There are two Elia allies on the board who backed her up, saying it was the board's fault for not investigating the financial matters more, not Elia's fault for putting forward budgets that ate away the district's reserves.
There's a lot of smoke in the story, with Elia and her allies claiming Elia's critics are full of crap and Elia's critics claiming she was disingenuous in her presentation of the district budget and financial matters, attempting to hide the details.
One thing we do know from this story - Elia remains a controversial figure in Hillsborough who responds to any question about her performance with aggressive counterattack (but only on her terms - notice she only responded with an op-ed but wouldn't give comment to the paper for the initial story) and as with the deaths of the students under her watch, she refuses to take any responsibility for the matter (though she claims otherwise, she spends a lot of time diverting responsibility for the financial mess by pointing fingers at others for being lazy or incompetent.)
One other thing we can anticipate from this story as well - when Elia is pressured here in New York, she will be quick to go on the counterattack and divert responsibility to others.
She did this with the death of the students under her watch and now she's doing it with the financial mismanagement allegations.