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Hillsborough school board takes first steps to find next superintendent

A search could take six months. But other school boards are also looking for a new leader.
Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins talks at One Buc Place in August 2018. He will retire when his contract ends a year from now. But the school board must start searching for his replacement. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Jun. 20
Updated Jun. 20

TAMPA — Hiring the next superintendent to lead Hillsborough County Public Schools could take six months or more. It could cost $100,000. The School Board has a long wish list. And to hire this person, it must compete against at least a half-dozen other Florida school districts also in the market for new leaders.

Board members came to grips with these sobering realities at Thursday’s workshop as they took the first steps to replace Jeff Eakins, who is retiring when his contract expires a year from now.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hillsborough school superintendent Jeff Eakins will retire in a year

While they could not vote on any measures Thursday, they still decided by consensus to use a search firm and look at candidates from around the nation. They are leaning toward a “piggyback” arrangement in which Hillsborough would replicate another district’s contract with a search firm; rather than starting from scratch with a request for proposals, which would take months longer.

Under the piggyback scenario, the search firm could be in place as early as August. That timeline puts the school board on track to name Eakins’ successor by the very beginning of 2020.

It will cost between $45,000 to $95,000 to hire a search firm, said Gretchen Saunders’ the district’s chief business officer. And, if the firm needs outside help conducting surveys and arranging community meetings, that could cost thousands more.

“But then there is a cost if we don’t hire the right person,” said board member Lynn Gray.

Added member Stacy Hahn: “We have one shot at doing this, and we need to do it right.”

Eakins acknowledged it was “a little weird” to sit alongside the board as members tried to articulate the qualities they will seek in the district’s next chief executive.

Chairwoman Tamara Shamburger wants someone who is “battle tested,” committed to Hillsborough’s diverse communities, and “a candidate who will relentlessly drive for results.” Karen Perez wants a continued focus on mental health. Steve Cona wants “a leader, much like the one we have now, one that will be compassionate, obviously, and take the reins as soon as they get into the position.”

One by one, they remarked on the many different skill sets the job requires. Whoever they hire will oversee the education of more than 220,000 students from preschool years to adult education. Management experience is crucial as the district is one of the largest employers in the state, with a workforce of nearly 25,000.

Board member Cindy Stuart cautioned against placing too much stock in formal degrees or titles. Neither Eakins nor his predecessor, MaryEllen Elia, has a doctoral degree.

Melissa Snively said she wants someone who shares Eakins’ integrity and will continue the culture he established of “servant leadership.” But she said the district needs to be innovative and move away from the system’s “self preservation and bureaucracy."

While she did not directly level that criticism at Eakins, he had spent 26 years in the system when he took the top job in 2015. Every superintendent since 1967 has been hired from within the school district.

Eakins said it will be important to find someone who can instill public confidence, whether in Temple Terrace, urban Tampa, South Tampa or Plant City. “You have to envision them standing in front of those communities and delivering a trusted message,” he said.

To the suggestion that he was too much of an insider, Eakins said he was able to affect change in such a large organization because he had “a lot of relational capital. And I had to spend a lot of it; I have very little left in my account.”

Eakins’ $225,000 annual salary may not be competitive with top candidates nationwide, however. He went without a raise in 2017, when his contract was extended. The board members agreed that the next superintendent’s salary will be negotiable.

The board is expected to take more concrete steps when it meets in July.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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