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Candidates are revealed for Hillsborough schools leader

Jeff Eakins, the current superintendent, is retiring, effective June 30.

TAMPA — From as far away as Wisconsin and as close as down the hall, dozens of educators have thrown in their names to replace Jeff Eakins as superintendent of the nation’s seventh-largest school district.

The list of applicants to lead Hillsborough County Public Schools, released Friday, includes deputy superintendent Chris Farkas and Chief of Schools Harrison Peters. Alberto Vazquez Matos, a onetime Catholic schools educator who served as Eakins’ first deputy superintendent, wants to relocate from Hartford, Conn., where he is now a deputy superintendent.

These and 48 others want to succeed Eakins, the Ohio-born superintendent who is retiring on June 30. Like his three predecessors, Eakins was hired from within the large school district.

This time, wanting a national search, the School Board has hired Ray and Associates of Iowa to recruit and vet a larger pool of candidates. Ray plans to cut the list to 10 to 12 candidates and present them, along with their background materials, to the board during a series of meetings in January.

A divided Hillsborough County School Board fired Superintendent MaryEllen Elia in 2015, and appointed Jeff Eakins, her deputy superintendent, to replace her. Elia and the two superintendents who served before her held the job for a decade each.

Under that scenario, the next superintendent could be selected on Jan. 21.

But the board is not bound by Ray’s work. If necessary, board members can end the search and name an interim leader until they can agree on a selection.

The 51 applicants include about a half-dozen current and former district employees, including Clair Mel Elementary principal Gloria Waite and Strawberry Crest High School teacher Ryan Haczynski.

RELATED: 51 people applied to lead Hillsborough schools. What we know so far.

It also includes Florida educators such as Wayne Alexander, who ran afoul of the Hernando County School Board a decade ago; Addison Davis, a Clay County superintendent who applied even though he is running for re-election there; and Peter Licata, a regional superintendent in Palm Beach County who rose to be a finalist in this year’s Volusia County superintendent search.

School Board chairwoman Melissa Snively urged the community this week to honor the selection process and have faith that it will work. "There is no predetermined outcome and no predetermined person,” she said, calling also for a “cone of silence” among her fellow board members. “We need to be very careful to remain impartial as this process plays itself out,” she said.

Hillsborough County School Board chairwoman Melissa Snively wants her fellow board members to observe a "cone of silence" while selecting the next superintendent. [ Times staff ]

Here are some questions and answers about the superintendent search.

Why is the Hillsborough school superintendent important?

The Hillsborough County public school system is by far the largest employer in the Tampa Bay area with a workforce of nearly 25,000. The district is the nation’s seventh-largest, serving more than 220,000 students. A seven-member elected board hires the superintendent, approves the yearly budget and sets overall policy. But the superintendent is in charge of all other hiring, firing and day-to-day operations. That includes the appointment of cabinet members who handle transportation, instruction, personnel and ongoing initiatives including the Achievement Schools, literacy and early childhood education projects.

Babette Bailey, the St. Joseph's Children's Hospital Director of Patient Care and Hillsborough school superintendent Jeff Eakins, right, read to children from the childcare center in Tampa recently. Early childhood education and kindergarten readiness have been among Eakins' top priorities. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Why is Jeff Eakins leaving?

In his letter to the School Board, Eakins said he wants to be more available to his family, including his aging parents in Ohio. Eakins has worked for the school district since 1989 and will have been superintendent for five years when he steps down on or before June 30. His three predecessors served roughly a decade each. But, more and more, district superintendents serve about three to five years.

Will the board hire an inside candidate? Or someone from outside?

There are arguments to be made on either side, and the board members generally agree that it is important to do a broad search. An inside candidate will be familiar with Florida law and local issues. But an outsider might be more willing to shake things up, even if that means dismissing some long-serving administrators.

Members of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association walk out in frustration during a Hillsborough School Board meeting in November 2017. Like other large school systems, Hillsborough is struggling with low morale and a teacher shortage. [ Times (2017) ]

What are the school district’s most pressing issues?

Like most large public school districts, Hillsborough faces challenges related to economic disparities among its students. Reading levels are chronically low, especially in high-poverty schools. At some schools, more than half the students test at the state’s lowest level. Charter schools, which are funded by taxpayers but operate independently, are competing aggressively for students, especially in the growing Hillsborough suburbs. Their growth bleeds the district of tax funding and causes schools to lose families who are most supportive and involved. Hillsborough also is under pressure to recruit and retain good teachers at a time when many are discouraged with the profession. Finally, rapid population growth in the southern part of the county has Hillsborough scrambling to build schools to accommodate new students.

Rachel O'Dea, left, principal of Forest Hills Elementary, helps Tyanaliz Gonzalez, 10, with her comprehension skills while reading a chapter from the book "Esperanza Rising" in September. Forest Hills is taking part in a pilot program designed by Harvard University to help students improve their reading and writing skills. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

When and how will the School Board and its search consultant narrow the list of candidates?

Ray and Associates is vetting the original group now, verifying information and evaluating the candidates using input it received during a series of surveys, focus groups and community meetings in the fall.

Sandra Gero, a regional search associate at Ray and Associates, hosts a meeting at the Middleton High School auditorium and gathers public comments on what they are looking for for the next Hillsborough County School Superintendent on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

On Jan. 7, the board will be given the shorter list of 10 to 12 candidates, along with back-up materials. They will meet on that day and narrow the list to about five. On Jan. 16 they will interview the five candidates and narrow the list to two. On Jan, 21, they will conduct their final interviews and, if all goes as hoped, select a superintendent.

Ryan Ray, of Ray and Associates, scores a mock matrix of ice cream flavors to prepare School Board members for January, when they will chose among superintendent candidates. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times ]

How much does the job pay?

Eakins earned $225,000. His successor will likely negotiate a salary that is closer to $300,000.

What if a School Board member likes somebody on the original list, but that person does not make the consultant’s first cut?

At one of the January meetings, the board member could make a motion to add someone to the list. If a majority on the board agrees, that person can be added. But that person must be on the original list, meaning he or she applied by the deadline of Dec. 11.

Can we assume that the next superintendent is on the list that was released Friday?

Not necessarily, because of this big caveat: Searches do not always go as envisioned, largely because of Florida’s public records laws. Potential candidates — the best ones, some will argue — do not want to poison relationships with their current employers. So, often, the most desirable candidates will hold back.

Can the board or an individual board member woo a candidate they really want?

Yes. They would have to be careful not to discuss these efforts with one another, as that would violate the state’s Sunshine Law. But, hypothetically, a board member could get on a plane and meet in secret with a person not on the original list. That person could not be added to the pool if he or she did not apply by Dec. 11. But, at any of the planned board meetings in January, the board member could make a motion to reject all the original applicants and begin another search. “There would have to be another process to accomplish that,” said Jim Porter, the School Board’s attorney. That outcome could happen with a majority vote.

Mike Grego, Pinellas County Schools Superintendent, shown in 2014, has been discussed as a replacement for Hillsborough school leader Jeff Eakins. Grego did not apply for the job, but that doesn't mean Hillsborough leaders will not try to woo him. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

That sounds messy. Aren’t they on a deadline to wrap this whole thing up by June 30?

Board members have made it clear that they do not want to rush into a relationship that is not in the best interest of 220,000 students. If they hit a roadblock, they can always name an interim superintendent while they conduct a new search.