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Ice cream, palm trees and the search for a school leader in Hillsborough

Eager to attract top superintendent candidates, School Board members pore over a promotional flyer and other details. The deadline to apply is Dec. 11.
 
Ryan Ray, of the firm leading the search for a new Hillsborough County school superintendent, scores a mock matrix of ice cream flavors Wednesday. The exercise with School Board members was intended to prepare them for when they will chose among candidates for the job in January.
Ryan Ray, of the firm leading the search for a new Hillsborough County school superintendent, scores a mock matrix of ice cream flavors Wednesday. The exercise with School Board members was intended to prepare them for when they will chose among candidates for the job in January. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times staff ]
Published Oct. 2, 2019|Updated Oct. 2, 2019

TAMPA — More than once during Wednesday’s Hillsborough County School Board meeting about the superintendent search, the conversation turned to palm trees.

Board members examined a draft promotional flyer and wondered: Was it too wordy? Too busy? Would it benefit from pictures of palm trees, a beach scene, even coconuts, to lure a talented educational leader to the Tampa Bay area?

Enough, some of them finally said.

“I believe this flyer isn’t going to make or break anybody from applying for this job,” board member Steve Cona said.

Chairwoman Tamara Shamburger was more direct.

“If any person picks up this flyer and says, ‘There’s too many words on it,’ they’re not the person for this job,” she said. “Everybody knows about Florida. Florida wasn’t created yesterday. And before any candidate will call any one of us and say, tell me about your weather and your beaches, they need to be asking about what are your struggles, and what are your needs, and what can I do to to help you turn these schools around?”

The board, which hired Ray & Associates to assist with the search, is in new territory, having not chosen a superintendent from outside the district in more than 50 years. One factor candidates will consider is the work environment, as the Hillsborough board has a history of discord.

RELATED STORY: Consultants blitz through Hillsborough before searching for a superintendent

The seven members were cordial on Wednesday. But the session also highlighted their strong personalities.

Cindy Stuart, who initially resisted efforts to hire Ray, complained that a survey the firm administered to rank desirable qualifications was not as valid as it might appear, as many of the 3,200 responses were duplicates. Some people, she said, answered as both parents and employees. Stuart also asked pointed questions about Ray’s marketing plan.

There was general agreement on the list that resulted. Survey respondents want a decision-maker who is also willing to listen, with leadership skills to serve a diverse community. They want someone who inspires trust, models high standards of integrity, has experience that will benefit the district’s long-term financial health, and a “student first” philosophy.

But board member Stacy Hahn noticed that the advertisement, while listing these desired qualifications, did not include a job description. The district’s existing description dates back to 2006 and must be rewritten, board members agreed.

RELATED STORY: Hillsborough school superintendent Jeff Eakins will retire in a year

Shamburger cautioned fellow members against “micromanaging” Ray’s work. And Jim Porter, the board’s attorney, did the same.

Jeff Eakins, who became superintendent in 2015 after the board fired MaryEllen Elia, is retiring, effective June 30.

The search will be open in about a day, with a Dec. 11 deadline to apply. Board members will take a series of steps in January to narrow the field and make their final selection, although they have the option of rejecting all candidates and extending the search.

The board spent the latter part of Wednesday’s meeting learning how to complete an instrument called a “forced matrix” that they will use when it is time to narrow the pool of candidates. To make things easier for them, the team from Ray handed them sample forms on which they ranked their favorite flavors of ice cream.

Vanilla-chocolate swirl won the contest — proving, Shamburger said, that “we are a diverse community.”

WANT TO READ MORE? Our Gradebook blog has pulled out some of the more interesting comments in last month’s survey on what should be considered in the superintendent search.