Looking for Hillsborough’s new school chief | Editorial

Hillsborough schools need an innnovator
Hillsborough County Public Schools' Superintendent Jeff Eakins has given the School Board plenty of notice to get the search for his successor right. [Times photo by Chris Urso]
Hillsborough County Public Schools' Superintendent Jeff Eakins has given the School Board plenty of notice to get the search for his successor right. [Times photo by Chris Urso]
Published June 28

The Hillsborough County School Board took the first step last week in finding a successor to Superintendent Jeff Eakins, who is retiring next year. Board members generally agreed to conduct a national search, and they listed the ideal qualities for the next leader of the nation’s eighth-largest school system. This is an opportunity to aim high and to address nagging deficiencies in the school system.

The workshop was the board’s first meeting to plan the succession since Eakins announced earlier this month he would retire at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, about one year from now. That timetable gives the board plenty of room to cast a wide net for Eakins’ successor and to oversee a smooth transition. While the board took no official action last week, members expressed their desire to conduct a national search. That’s appropriate for a district this size, and the anticipated cost — up to $90,000 — is well worth the benefit of an orderly, transparent selection process. The board is expected to vote on the details in July.

The meeting fell short, however, when board members took turns describing what they wanted in a superintendent. Virtually all the desired qualities — managerial experience, communication skills, the ability to work with private-sector partners — were boilerplate. It should be expected that the next superintendent have a vision for public schools, expertise in education and business and the ability to work with school staff, parents, lawmakers and community groups. These are the minimum qualifications. The board needs to think deeper about the specific challenges in Hillsborough and how the next superintendent must address them.

Board Member Melissa Snively came near the mark, calling for a superintendent who could foster an innovative spirit in the district and move its 25,000-strong bureaucracy away from a culture of “self-preservation.” That captured perfectly what’s needed in a district where some school populations shine while others — many in the urban core — lag in reading, struggle with disciplinary problems and suffer from little parental involvement. Eakins rolled out several initiatives to help low-performing schools, but those efforts are still ongoing. His successor will need a strategy to turn these schools around, a commitment to follow through and the willingness to change course if expectations fail.

Recent studies show the impact the school system has on Tampa Bay’s quality of life and ability to compete. The next superintendent cannot allow the school system to cleave geographically into two very different student experiences. Board members were right that the next leader must be sensitive to Hillsborough’s diverse student mix and adept at building an array of strong partnerships. But nothing is more important than honestly addressing the achievement gap.

The board seems resigned to paying more; Eakins, who earns $225,000 annually, went without a raise in 2017. Members also sound open to considering candidates who have had careers outside education. Still, it was clear many members had not fully formed their views, which is understandable at this early stage.

But the job description and the attributes that board members settle on in July will dictate the applicant pool. The board needs to fully convey the breadth of leading such a large, urban district. It needs to set clear expectations for the next superintendent, and establish an inclusive, workable process for incorporating community input. This is a critically important job, and the selection process should recognize that from the outset.