Jeff Eakins, who ascended to one of the nation’s top education jobs as a peacemaker after his predecessor’s firing, is stepping down as superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools when his contract expires a year from now.
Eakins, 54, cited family issues in his letter Monday to the School Board. His father in Ohio, a retired educator, is almost 80 years old. His mother is not much younger. Eakins’ wife, former teacher Peggy Jo Eakins, also left her extended family behind when the couple moved to Hillsborough in 1989 for jobs in the schools.
"Thirty years of being separated from my parents, our sister, nieces and nephews has been challenging for Peggy and me," Eakins wrote.
But while the letter spoke strictly of family, board members also noted the enormous stress of Eakins' job and questions that have arisen in recent weeks. Reading scores are down, not up, as the district tries its third initiative aimed at bringing educational equity to disadvantaged communities. And just last week, the board upended the administration's plan to change school mascots that had Native American themes.
Even on a good day, the nation’s eighth-largest district contends with pressure from a Republican-led state government that increasingly favors charter and private schools in matters of funding and authority.
"With what the state is doing, who wants to be in that job?' said Cindy Stuart, the longest-serving member of the board and, judging by the last round of evaluations, Eakins' biggest supporter.
To Stuart’s point, superintendent searches are ongoing or expected in Marion, Martin, Escambia, Indian River and Volusia counties.
Eakins’ planned retirement leaves the board with an important decision: whether to hire from within or conduct a national search for a new leader.
The last time Hillsborough hired a superintendent from outside was when it chose Raymond Shelton from Nebraska in 1967 — a year when humans had not yet walked on the moon.
Shelton was followed by Walter Sickles, Earl Lennard and MaryEllen Elia, all hired from within the system. Each served about a decade, a longevity unheard of in most communities.
Elia’s firing in January 2015 followed a series of controversies, including an ill-fated teaching reform partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that divided the board into warring factions. The vote was 4-3, as was the decision to hire Eakins, then a deputy superintendent, without a national search.
Shortly after Eakins took over, he realized the Gates experiment had contributed to a spending imbalance of nearly $200 million. The district was heavily indebted to bond holders who financed the construction of about 70 schools in the 1990s and early 2000s. That debt made it important to satisfy the bond rating firms with a sound spending plan. And it also made it difficult to meet maintenance needs. Air conditioners began to fail in large numbers.
A onetime elementary teacher who rose through the system in its federal spending office, Eakins set out as superintendent to address learning deficits in the district’s poorest communities. He pledged a more holistic approach as opposed to Elia’s style, which placed more emphasis on academics and college preparation.
He unveiled three consecutive programs to rescue failing schools: the Priority initiative, which was to focus on seven schools and use successful strategies to assist an expanded group; a modified version of Priority called Elevate and, most recently, the Achievement Schools system, which sought to improve instruction at 50 schools.
But money was always an issue.
During teacher pay negotiations, Eakins held firm, still trying to correct the spending imbalance. Despite protests outside the board meetings, work-to-contract days and an impasse case, the teachers never got the full raises they were offered during the years of the Gates reforms.
Teacher vacancies persisted at some schools in the Achievement group. Reading levels were especially low at those schools and, when the third-grade state test results arrived in May, they were even worse than before.
Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the teachers’ union that clashed with Eakins, said Monday, “it’s a stressful job and I understand the personal choice and wish him the best.”
Eakins sought to keep troubled children in school, where staff could meet their needs, instead of removing them in out-of-school suspensions. That approach led to complaints from teachers about discipline, and a board workshop on that issue is planned for June 25.
Eakins was successful in getting the district’s operational budget back on track. And, in a victory that surprised many, he worked with the union and public school advocates to pass a half-cent sales tax referendum to fix the air conditioners and other capital needs.
“His legacy, of course, is the referendum,” said Betty Castor, the former University of South Florida president who chairs the referendum’s oversight committee, “because he killed himself going form one meeting to another to another. I thought he really found his stride. There wasn’t a group on a corner that he wouldn’t talk to.”
Castor also commended Eakins for his efforts to expand early childhood education, creating preschool classes in the public schools and networking with other organizations to get children better prepared for kindergarten. “It’s disappointing that he’ll be leaving,” she said. “But he’s accomplished a lot and there’s a lot of positive feeling towards him.”
Eakins, in his letter to the board members, noted that the number of "F" schools in the district has been reduced significantly since he took over.
And graduation rates, a priority he and the board had set in 2015, have risen dramatically, from 76 percent in 2015 to 85.8 percent in 2018.
Eakins’ goal, which the district appears on track to achieving, is to reach 90 percent by the year 2020. He recently said he is most reassured in his job when he meets with students who are about to graduate, especially if they had challenges along the way.
Unlike Elia’s contract, which rolled over annually for an additional year and never expired, Eakins - who earns $225,000 a year - has a contract that runs out on June 30, 2020.
On March 12, towards the end of a meeting, board member Steve Cona suggested the board discuss a possible contract extension as a way of “not having our leadership going into a lame duck year. I don’t think that’s good for the district.”
Sometime between then and now, Eakins began to contemplate his future. “Some events that have occurred over the past several weeks involving our extended family have given us cause to examine more closely our priorities of faith and family,” he wrote in his letter.
Reactions to Eakins’ decision were mixed among the board members.
Cona, who was out of town, wrote in an email that “the district is in a much better place because of the work done by Jeff Eakins" and he looks forward to working with Eakins on the transition of leadership.
Melissa Snively said she appreciated Eakins’ announcing his plans early, which give the board time to find his replacement and help with the transition.
Member Karen Perez, a clinical social worker who appreciated Eakins’ work in mental health issues, said, “I’m really disappointed, I’m going to be honest with you. He’s done so much.”
Board member Lynn Gray, who had emerged as Eakins’ harshest critic on the board, said she was disappointed that the board never had the chance to discuss his contract.
Stuart, noting that Eakins had “four very rough years,” said: “I respect his decision that if he’s ready to say, ‘Okay I’ve done my part,’ we have to respect that. He understands the difficulty we’re going to have in trying to replace him.”
Stacy Hahn, one of the newer School Board members, said she has enjoyed working with Eakins. She said she would not second-guess her predecessors for having hired him without a national search, given the strong feelings on both sides of the Elia question.
Today, Hahn said, “I think a national search is important. I think we are in a good position if we are going to do a national search, to do it now. I think it’s a different culture than it was four years ago. We are an attractive place now to work and a lot of that I credit to the superintendent.”
Staff writer Jeff Solochek contributed to this report. Contact Marlene Sokol at email@example.com. Follow @Marlenesokol.
This is the letter that Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins wrote to the School Board on Monday:
June 10, 2019
Dear Board Members,
I want to start this letter by thanking each of you for giving me the opportunity to serve this district as its Superintendent. For the past four years, I’ve been able to witness the amazing work of our teachers, leaders, support staff, parents, partners and, of course, our incredible students. There is not a day that has gone by during which I have not been humbled by the sacrifice our employees and partners make to ensure student success. That is why the decision that Peggy and I have made has been extremely difficult. After 33 years of serving students, parents and fellow educators, Peggy and I have decided that at the conclusion of the final year of my current contract, I will be retiring. My final day will be June 30, 2020.
This decision comes as a result of Peggy and me evaluating the two most important priorities in our lives: faith and family. Before I am a Superintendent, I am a husband, son and brother. I am blessed to be the husband to the kindest person one could ever know. Anyone who knows Peggy or has taught with her, knows exactly what I mean. It is often said that being a Superintendent is a very challenging job. I personally have witnessed, however, that being a Superintendent’s spouse is even more challenging. As a Superintendent, there are days when you know that your spouse is suffering for you, and unfortunately, there is little that can be done to ease that feeling. Despite these challenges, Peggy is incredibly supportive. She is a woman of faith and a true prayer warrior. That faith has allowed us to persevere through the most difficult times and, at the end of the day, be able to properly give credit to the One who provides the successes we celebrate. That being said, I am a husband first, and the sacrifices that Peggy has made and continues to make certainly have been weighing heavily on me for some time now.
I am also a son and brother. Thirty years ago, Peggy and I made the decision to move from Ohio to Florida to teach in Hillsborough County Public Schools. What a blessing that has been. The relationships we have formed through the years have meant so much to us. Hillsborough County Public Schools has been our family. However, 30 years of being separated from my parents, our sisters, nieces and nephews has been challenging for Peggy and me. Some events that have occurred over the past several weeks involving our extended family have given us cause to examine more closely our priorities of faith and family as I enter the final year of my current contract.
A question we have been asking ourselves is, “Based on our priorities of faith and family, what is God asking us to do?” The answer? Obedience. Obedience sometimes involves sacrifice…giving up something that, from our human point of view, we feel we should hold onto. In my case, in order to be the husband, son and brother I desire to be, I needed to make the decision to retire at the conclusion of the 2019-20 school year.
I realize that any decision I make has implications for the School Board, staff and the district as a whole. These implications have been weighing heavily on me throughout this decision making process. I care deeply for the people my decision will effect. I work with an amazing staff of district and site based personnel who sacrifice daily to ensure that students’ needs are our priority.
Just four short years ago, our district faced one of the worst financial crises in its history, 17 schools were rated “F” and our graduation rates were declining, resulting in wavering trust from our community stakeholders. Now, four years later, our financial picture is much stronger, the number of “F” schools has been reduced significantly and our graduation rate increase over the past four years is one of the highest in the state. In November, our community validated the fact that trust has been restored by approving a 1.3 billion dollar sales tax referendum—the first in our district’s history. None of this would have been possible without the effort of the dedicated leaders, staff and community partners with whom it has been my privilege to work. Although there are still many challenges ahead of us, there is no doubt that this team will be able to overcome them. I look forward to the upcoming year as we continue to focus on literacy, early childhood, graduation rates, workforce preparation and ensuring each student has the supports needed to level their playing field.
I also am fortunate to work for a Board that has clear priorities around what’s best for our students and employees. Thank you for providing the support needed as we continue to work to overcome the financial challenges that existed when I became Superintendent in 2015. I appreciate that, with your support, we have been able to create the conditions to address key academic issues through the district’s strategic plan. As a Board, you can be proud of the work of our teachers, leaders and support staff as we celebrate student successes everyday. You can also be proud of those same teachers, leaders and support staff for addressing head-on the very challenging issues of literacy, equity and mental health. As a district, we have called out these issues, among others, to address as a system and a community.
Out of respect to the Board and this district, I am notifying you of my decision to retire at the conclusion of my current contract now, to allow the Board to create the proper timeline to ensure a smooth transition to the next Superintendent. A smooth transition is important for every stakeholder in order to maintain momentum and culture. I will do all I can to assist with this process. For a district and a community that means so much to Peggy and me, it will be important to us to make sure the next leader feels supported and embraced.
Thank you again for your support and leadership. I look forward to continuing to serve this district to ensure a successful 2019-20 school year.
With Much Respect,
Jeff Eakins Superintendent