TAMPA — If everyone can agree on the money, then Hillsborough Community College may have its next president.
He's Kenneth Atwater, 58, the president of South Mountain Community College in Phoenix.
HCC trustees agreed Monday to offer Atwater a three-year contract with salary and benefits totaling $285,000 a year.
If Atwater and HCC come to terms, trustees could approve the contract May 25. He would start July 1, replacing Gwendolyn Stephenson, who retires June 30.
After hearing about the proposed terms from a reporter, Atwater said he didn't think the compensation package discussed Monday would be a deterrent.
"I've had a chance to study the college from top to bottom. … It's a great institution," said Atwater, who now makes about $200,000 annually. "I'm just glad that the process appears to be coming closer to an end. I'm excited about coming."
The decision came after HCC's board heard from a trustee who recently went to Atwater's campus. Plant City lawyer Daniel Coton said he wanted to learn two things: Can Atwater make hard decisions? And can he take over a school the size of HCC?
"Everything I saw led me to believe that he would make an easy transition over here," said Coton, who met with more than 60 people in Phoenix.
With an enrollment topping 44,000 — that's more students than the University of South Florida has in Tampa — HCC is more than four times the size of South Mountain Community College.
"The school's a lot bigger," Coton said. "… It's a big step for him. But he seems to have a personality that's going to reach out to a lot of people."
At South Mountain, Atwater won praise from students, faculty, staff and people outside the college, including the mayor of Phoenix, a member of the City Council and the superintendent of the city's high schools.
"Everybody seemed to really feel that he was such an advocate for his college that they sort of wanted to get on board," Coton said. "That's what most of the politicians said: 'You know, he just calls me up and you feel like you want to help him.' "
When Atwater arrived at South Mountain, the school had a reputation for being in a poor area with gangs, people in Arizona told Coton.
Atwater pledged to get involved in the community and moved to south Phoenix, the area served by the college. In the nine years since, the area has blossomed, South Mountain's enrollment has grown 30 percent and he has changed the focus of the college from inward to outward.
By bringing more racial and church groups into the conversation, South Mountain now has the largest community advisory board of any school in the Maricopa County community college system. Community groups routinely use its facilities for events, enhancing the perception that the area is secure.
The college is building the first library to be jointly run with the city and has two campus-based charter schools. Atwater was credited with persuading a foundation that mainly aids university students to transfer 30 of its scholarships to South Mountain.
But Atwater learned he couldn't do everything. He tried for four years but couldn't negotiate an agreement to develop land on an American Indian reservation to serve community needs, according to Coton's report.
People who report to Atwater said he can be firm without being threatening or intimidating.
At one point, Coton was told, Atwater supervised an employee whose activism for a minority group was affecting the college. Atwater told the employee he respected strong advocacy, but such efforts at South Mountain should focus on the college, not outside interests. The employee remains a strong leader and advocate for South Mountain.
Coton said he did talk to leaders in Phoenix about Atwater's decision to hire a congressman's daughter to run a scholarship program into which the congressman had funneled millions of dollars in grants.
An internal investigator for the Maricopa County community college system concluded the hiring broke no rules, but looked like patronage.
Atwater says it was not.
After asking around, Coton agreed.