BROOKSVILLE — As Hernando's students and teachers head back to class this week, the School Board picks up the task of selecting the district's next chief executive.
After a public meet-and-greet Monday evening, the board is slated to interview the seven superintendent hopefuls Tuesday and Wednesday.
The candidates hail from four states and bring a diverse array of experience. The two internal candidates offer the chance to go with a known quantity after the tumultuous, two-year tenure of Wayne Alexander, who came from Connecticut and was pushed out last September. Or board members could decide to bring in one of the other five applicants to offer a fresh perspective on the district.
The board could direct staffers to begin contract negotiations with a preferred candidate as early as Wednesday afternoon. Otherwise, a workshop is scheduled for Jan. 19. Either way, the goal is to have a contract signed by February and someone in place no later than July 1.
Here's a rundown of the candidates, starting with the two currently employed by the district:
Technically speaking, Hernando's current interim superintendent, Sonya Jackson, has already achieved the goal she set early in her career: Hold the top spot in a school district.
Jackson, who has two decades of education experience, realized that dream in September when the School Board tapped her to take over for Alexander. Jackson had been promoted in July to assistant superintendent after serving as the district's executive director for school services for four years.
Now Jackson faces the double-edged sword that can cut both ways for an internal candidate — especially one sitting in the position she wants to keep.
She can point to what she describes as a solid work history with the district. She came to Hernando in 2004, serving for a year as coordinator for staff development before being promoted by then-superintendent Wendy Tellone. She brought school-level administration experience from Putnam County, where she served as an elementary school principal. One of her former bosses told the Times recently that Jackson was instrumental in turning around a troubled school there, and colleagues in Hernando have praised her professionalism and accessibility.
"She always listens to people," said Jim Knight, director of student services. "She's more than willing to stop what she's doing to hear your point of view."
But having worked in a leadership position with Alexander, who left after the board lost confidence in him, might also be a liability. When the board voted to have Jackson take over as interim superintendent, then-Chairwoman Dianne Bonfield suggested Jackson shares responsibility for an apparent lack of oversight on some issues, including the Nature Coast Technical High School admissions debacle.
Another board member has expressed a concern that Jackson may not have the chops to handle the rough-and-tumble political nature of the superintendent's seat.
Jackson scoffs at that, saying people should not mistake her meekness for weakness. And now, four months into her interim status, Jackson said she is more confident than ever she is capable of doing the job.
She said she would continue progress on the big issues that face the district, especially the state's new accountability model, the effort to earn districtwide accreditation, and the ever-tightening budget.
"I feel comfortable in the position," she said. "There are quite a few things I've been working on with the staff to try to get us where we need to be."
If would-be superintendents ran as elected candidates, Ken Pritz might win on name recognition alone.
Pritz started his career three decades ago as a teacher at Hernando High in Brooksville. He worked as an assistant principal at Parrott Middle in Brooksville for six years and then principal at West Hernando Middle for another six before a promotion to the district office.
Pritz served as executive director of school services from 2002 to 2005 and then executive director of facility and support operations for three years until Alexander asked him to return to Hernando High, this time as principal to help turn the tide at the struggling school.
But Pritz says it's his proven track record across the county that sets him apart.
"If (the School Board) is looking for someone that knows the county and the people in the county, knows the system and was part of developing the system, I think I'm the candidate," he said.
As a principal, Pritz says, he has helped raise test scores and staff morale. The six years of executive posts gave him experience ranging from growth planning to curriculum and budget building, lending the well-rounded perspective needed to run a school district. And the last two years at Hernando High reminded him of what work in the education trenches is like, he said.
The superintendent post, he says, is the next logical step.
"This career move is the final piece of the puzzle for me so that I can give back to Hernando County in the most productive way I can imagine," Pritz wrote in a cover letter. "As a lifelong educator, I understand the concerns of the frontline teacher as well as the concerns which present themselves at the highest levels of school administration."
His application includes letters of recommendation from former School Board members Jim Malcolm, Donald Hensley and John Druzbick; former superintendent Wendy Tellone, and former assistant superintendent Edward Poore.
But such a long tenure could be a detriment if a majority of the board has a desire to bring in a fresh perspective. And someone who has been around for so long is often perceived as part of the old guard — or as it is often referred to in Hernando, the good ol' boy network.
Pritz doesn't buy it. He pointed to staff changes he has made throughout his career that he said put the best interests of the district above any friendships forged along the way.
"I don't play into that good old boy system," he said. "That's not who I am. I am my own person."
As the chief human resources officer for Florida's ninth-largest school district, Gregory Adkins can boast of a perspective the rest of the field can not — experience in the Sunshine State, on a big scale.
The Lee County district, which includes the cities of Fort Myers and Cape Coral, has a student enrollment of some 79,000, a full- and part-time workforce of about 11,500 and a budget of more than $1.6 billion.
Adkins, in his current role, says he has been on the front lines of the toughest issues. He is the district's chief labor negotiator and also serves on the superintendent's budget committee, helping to manage a roughly $700 million operational budget from which Adkins says he helped trim more than $98 million in the last two years.
Some members of Hernando's superintendent search committee voiced concerns that Adkins may be short on district-level experience on the curriculum side. He offered a response to those concerns in an e-mail to the Times.
As one of three chief officers for the district, Adkins said, he is involved in all major educational decisions that have districtwide impact. They range from academic program selection to the district accreditation effort.
He recently led the effort to incorporate student achievement into the district's teacher evaluation system, he said. And he is working with administrators to come up with strategies to improve a poorly performing Lee high school.
Whatever the challenge, Adkins said, he regularly taps knowledge gleaned from his time working on the school level.
A former combat engineer for the Army and the Ohio National Guard, Adkins began his education career in Lee County in 1988 as a middle school science teacher. He served as an assistant principal at a Cape Coral middle school for two years and as principal at Dunbar Middle in Fort Myers for five years.
"My past experience as a principal and teacher have been of great benefit to me in this continuing role," he said.
Lee County superintendent James Browder called Adkins a consummate professional who has a strong sense of what's right for students, especially when it comes to academics.
"Greg works really well with my academic chief officer, and I would not hesitate for one second to move him to academic chief," Browder said.
"I believe I am qualified to be the county's next superintendent because I have a proven record of leading diverse groups of people toward the accomplishments previously thought to be extremely challenging or simply unattainable," Adkins said. "My true strength and talent, however, is my love of working with people, particularly in the area I feel is one of the noblest professions — education."
Bryan A. Blavatt
As at least two other Hernando superintendent candidates — and the district's last superintendent — can attest, chief executives often depart on not-so-pretty terms.
Bryan Blavatt can brag that he led Kentucky's Boone County school district for 12 years, the longest tenure in the district's history, and apparently the community did not want to see him go.
"Blavatt, a wizard at communications and organizational leadership, will be missed," the editors of the Boone County Recorder wrote on the paper's opinion pages not long before Blavatt retired in October, 2008. "His plainspoken style and positive attitude are at the heart of Boone County's successes in recent years."
During Blavatt's tenure, the district, located in the northwestern corner of the state, not far from Cincinnati, grew to the third-largest in Kentucky, with more than 18,000 students. He says he is most proud that the district maintained academic excellence during that growth, becoming one of the highest performing in the state, despite the second-lowest per-student dollar allocation.
The district outperformed other large districts in standardized test scores and dropout and graduation rates, he said.
"This was not an easy task, considering that we grew by over 800 students and built or renovated a school every year for 11 years," he said.
Blavatt says he excels in building trust and confidence by being honest and accessible.
"In many ways it is like coaching," he said. "You establish a game plan based on data and observation. You get the right people on board in the right positions. You allow them to succeed. And you remain vigilant in monitoring high levels of performance."
Blavatt took superintendent of the year honors from the Kentucky Association of School Administrators in 2007. He was praised for working to secure state and federal funding to keep the district's technology on the cutting edge.
"Bryan's vision and goals are clearly focused on student achievement and high expectations for everyone," former Kentucky education commissioner Gene Wilhoit wrote in a recommendation letter for the award. "He knows that leadership on the building level is absolutely critical to successful teaching and learning.
Blavatt spent much of his career in Maryland, with six years as vice principal at a vocational-technology high school and eight as a principal at another high school. Between 1992 and 1996, he served as a court liaison for Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina, where as a member of the superintendent's staff he designed an alternative school program for students with discipline problems.
Blavatt, now 63, says he retired too early and has the luxury of being picky in his job search to find the right fit.
"After reviewing the available data on Hernando and speaking to quite a few colleagues from Florida, I decided to apply," he said. "It is a good match."
Aaron K. Mackey
Aaron Mackey worked his entire career in one Ohio school district and hoped he would remain there as superintendent well into this decade.
But Mackey's four-year tenure ended in 2008 when the Princeton City School Board voted unanimously not to renew his contract.
A change in leadership would allow the district, about 15 miles north of Cincinnati, to move forward with "accelerated progress," the board said in a statement issued after the vote. Board members were apparently not in a rush to push Mackey out, though — he remained until his contract expired.
Later, after the community complained about the move, board members were more frank in their comments. The district, comprised of roughly 7,500 students and with a budget of about $73 million, had improved its academic performance, but not enough, they said.
Between 2001 and 2008, Princeton had climbed in Ohio's performance-based rating system, putting the district in the "effective" category, the middle of five rungs. Board members thought a new superintendent could do better.
"We need to be an excellent-rated school district," board member Sandy Leach said during one meeting in early 2008.
But Mackey and his supporters, including two former Princeton board members and the superintendent Mackey succeeded, told the Times recently that the decision came down to politics. New board members, they contend, wanted to put their stamp on the district by bringing in a new superintendent.
"As far as my record of achievement, it's clear," Mackey said.
Leach later praised Mackey in a letter of recommendation upon his departure; she called his efforts a success, saying the district during his tenure had made "noteworthy progress in the areas of graduation rates, student discipline, district finances and facilities."
Mackey helped the board manage the district's money wisely, helped promote character-building programs, and worked well with the six mayors in the district to garner their support for the schools, Leach wrote. The district's overall graduation rate had risen more than six points to just over 96 percent in two years.
Mackey got his first teaching job in Princeton in 1970 and served as an assistant principal at the junior high level and then as principal for two elementary schools. After 11 years as a junior high principal, he was appointed in 2001 to assistant superintendent for administration.
After leaving Princeton schools, he worked as an adjunct professor teaching school law at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and co-founded an education consulting firm called Administrator Assistance Inc., though the business has not been active in recent months, he said.
Mackey said he would use a hands-on approach to guide Hernando to academic improvement.
"If I get the opportunity, I'm going to be involved and not look at Hernando County as a stepping stone," he said. "I'm going to bring the small-town, small-district approach to a big district."
S. Jayne Risen Morgenthal
After a brief detour to a small district in Kentucky, Jayne Morgenthal says she's ready to get her career back on track.
Morgenthal resigned in September from the superintendent post in Kentucky's Elizabethtown Independent School District after just 10 months on the job. The resignation came shortly after the local newspaper reported that Morgenthal had applied for the job in Hernando County.
Elizabethtown School Board members wouldn't comment to local media at the time or to the Times last month on circumstances surrounding the departure.
According to Morgenthal, she informed the board that she would be looking for another job and acknowledged that board members were not happy about it. But more significantly, she said, it had become clear by then that she and the board had differing philosophies on how to run the district of about 2,500 students and 550 employees, located about 45 minutes south of Louisville.
She denied rumors that swirled in the community claiming she was forced to resign in lieu of being fired for mismanagement or malfeasance.
"Our vision and our mission were not in the same direction, and the board and the superintendent cannot have their vision and their mission going in different directions," she said. "I think the board individually and collectively were good people; we just weren't good for each other."
Morgenthal said she hopes the Hernando board will instead focus on the highlights of her resume, especially the decade she spent as assistant superintendent for Covington Independent Schools, a district of about 6,500 students, also in Kentucky. Morgenthal said she helped oversee budgets totaling $60 million and served as the instructional leader for the district in charge of assessment and curriculum.
James Biggs, former superintendent for Covington, called Morgenthal a top-notch executive whose integrity is above reproach. Morgenthal had worked for three years as a director for elementary education in Covington when Biggs promoted her in 1990 to associate superintendent.
"She's honest as the day is long," Biggs said.
The Kentucky native began her teaching career in Elizabethtown, spending eight years as an elementary teacher and then six years as instructional assessment supervisor for grades K-12.
"I know how to get the job done," Morgenthal said. "I know how to work with people. I can raise academic expectations in Hernando to the next level."
John R. Phillips
Hernando County would be quite a change from the urban school districts John Phillips has worked in since his career began nearly four decades ago.
Phillips started as a middle school math and science teacher in St. Louis Public Schools. He became an elementary school assistant principal at Wyman Elementary in St. Louis in 1986 and then principal of the school in 1991.
Phillips described Wyman's setting as "a harshly under-served section of inner-city St. Louis with a predominantly African-American population." During his six years as principal, according to Phillips, an influx of immigrant families from the Balkans and East Asia caused the school's student demographic to drop from 98 percent black to less than 50 percent.
At the same time, Phillips says, Wyman's performance improved dramatically, topping all 105 of the district's schools in achievement gains, student and staff attendance, and drops in suspensions.
While budgets and benchmarks have a lot to do with modern education, Phillips says he has two qualities that have served him well no matter the setting: a caring nature and top-notch communication skills.
"One of my greater strengths has been the ability to facilitate consensus around change when the goals sought were for the good of the community, whether it be a neighborhood or a learning community," Phillips said in an e-mail response to the Times. "This would not be possible without first establishing an atmosphere of inclusiveness through cultivating trust, honesty, respect and a strong sense of ownership."
From St. Louis, Phillips headed to Kansas City school district, where he served for three years as assistant superintendent for school leadership, supervising 20 schools. Phillips combined strong people skills and a wealth of research-based knowledge to do the job, said Ida Love, a former deputy superintendent in Kansas City and Phillips' supervisor at the time.
"He understands what happens at the schools and what the leadership should be doing for teachers and principals to be successful," Love said.
From 2000 to 2003, Phillips served as associate superintendent for the Charleston County school district in South Carolina, where he oversaw the operation of 12 schools just outside of downtown Charleston. He says he came up with successful strategies to improve academic performance and reduce the dropout rate.
Phillips then spent a year as executive director for school reform for Atlanta Public Schools, supervising 21 schools in the district's northwest region. From 2005 to last June, he worked as a director for Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C., where his responsibilities were to forge partnerships between the university and nearby schools. He was successful, Claflin's dean of education wrote in a recommendation letter.
Now, Phillips says he is ready to return to K-12 education.
"I am confident that I have the requisite experience to lead and grow the Hernando County schools to become a much higher performing district, and elicit well deserved recognition and support from local, state and federal entities."
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.