Hillsborough school board members cite safety and equity concerns in superintendent’s evaluation

Jeff Eakins is advised to be more responsive to teacher concerns and “fierce” in confronting racism.
Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins at a meeting of preschool providers in March. Eakins has made kindergarten readiness a priority as he seeks to improve student reading levels. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]
Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins at a meeting of preschool providers in March. Eakins has made kindergarten readiness a priority as he seeks to improve student reading levels. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]
Published May 1, 2019|Updated May 3, 2019

TAMPA - Mixed in with their respectful acknowledgements of Superintendent Jeff Eakins’ accomplishments, the seven Hillsborough County School Board members who employ him made their expectations clear.

They want to see more order in the schools, and for teachers to feel supported when they are dealing with discipline problems.

They want to see more students excel at reading. They want to see sound management of a $1.3 billion, ten year windfall in sales tax receipts.

And, as far as the chairwoman is concerned, there should be no mistaking the superintendent’s position on systemic racism.

“It is critical that you are explicit, overt, and tenacious around addressing these issues,” Tamara Shamburger wrote in her yearly evaluation of Eakins. “I am concerned that at times you are aloof and naive when it comes to acknowledging the strained race relations across our district. These continued epitaphs and undertones need to be called out and addressed swiftly, boldy, and conclusively.”

The board members’ reviews, now posted as an agenda item for Tuesday’s meeting, say as much about the members and their own agendas as the 54-year-old superintendent, a career district employee whose contract runs through 2020. Eakins gave himself a 30-point score in his self-evaluation, higher than the board members did.

The evaluations have no bearing on Eakins’ prospects for a contract renewal. But they do serve as a platform for the members to articulate their concerns about the large district.

Among them:

Steve Cona III, one of the newer members, wants more expertise to manage proceeds of the sales tax that voters approved in November. “We need to be prepared to have someone 100 percent dedicated/focused to its implementation,” he wrote.

Lynn Gray, who gave Eakins the lowest score of the seven (18 points), complained of district staff who are hired without enough experience, a lack of oversight over charter schools, over-reliance on the iReady testing system for reading and math, and poor teacher morale. “Remarkably, you do not voice the need for increased teacher pay at any point during our board meetings so at least our teachers have a sense that you as the Superintendent understand this is a critical area of need,” she wrote. With the exception of additional support being offered at the district’s 50 long-struggling Achievement schools, Gray wrote, “there is little reason why teachers stay in this district.”

Stacy Hahn, a career educator who is also new to the board, was mostly supportive of Eakins. But, she wrote, she shares his concern about low student reading scores and, like Gray, has heard from teachers who “feel frustrated due to a lack of support regarding student behavior.”

Karen Perez, a social worker who has made mental health her overriding issue, wrote that “this district must also take a hard look at the students that have been ‘mislabeled’ as having left town or enrolled in private schools, when in fact they had dropped out, transferred to an alternative program, or attempted to pass the GED.” She included alarming statistics on students with mental health issues: One in five meet that criteria, she wrote, but more than 70 percent will not receive treatment or therapy. While there are limitations in the services that schools can offer, Perez pointed out that the district compounds the students’ instability when it makes massive principal and school personnel changes at the end of each school year.

Shamburger focused largely on the Achievement schools, of which the majority are in her electoral district. “District 5 is long overdue for significant increases in student achievement results,” she wrote. “Time is of the essence to break this cycle of perpetually low performing schools. As I have shared publicly, the Achievement Schools initiative will be your legacy.”

Melissa Snively, who has long been concerned about student discipline, restated that position. “Bullying is still a problem across the district between students AND teachers,” she wrote. Snively also reminded Eakins of the hazards the district created when, in 2017, it began phasing out school busing to families within two miles of the schools. She implored him to evaluate the cost savings by that move, and “consider reinstating transportation services in parts of the district where pathways are still considered hazardous by common sense definition, and not solely by statute.”

The longest-serving member of the board, Cindy Stuart, gave Eakins the highest of the seven ratings, a 29.

Except for a few areas that she felt could be improved - communication between divisions, for example; and streamlining processes and procedures in some departments - she recounted Eakins’ accomplishments of the past year. These include continued increase in high school graduation rates, a focus on early childhood education, and passage of the sales tax referendum.

“You continue to maintain the highest level of integrity and honesty with board members, your team and the community,” Stuart wrote. “You have been challenged with some big decisions over the past year and you always keep a work ethic and pace that is admirable to ensure that the needs of students are met. Keep up the great efforts on behalf of our students.”