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Race, politics cloud Hillsborough’s search for a new superintendent

With much at stake, School Board members and others are working behind the scenes to influence the decision. A final vote is set for Jan. 21.

TAMPA — The plan, at least on paper, was to conduct a professional, open and clinical search for Hillsborough County’s next school superintendent.

The reality is anything but.

School Board members and others have been working outside the official process to recruit candidates and score points for their favorites. Leaders of a civil rights organization are spreading information to discredit an out-of-town applicant. And the board had it out in a harsh debate Tuesday over whether Hillsborough should hire its next leader from within. After two insiders were added to the semifinalist list, one of them dropped out a day later.

“I can’t get with any of this,” said Bianca Goolsby, a former teacher-turned-activist. “I feel like I’m living in the Twilight Zone.”

RELATED: A detailed look at the candidates

At stake is the future of 220,000 students in a community with large numbers of immigrants, urban poor, military families and suburbanites, including thousands who are migrating to charter schools.

Board member Steve Cona, looking optimistically to the next stage, said, “I really believe that this job will be won in the interview."

Hillsborough County School Board member Steve Cona is calling for a fair selection process. He also was an early supporter of Addison Davis, the Clay County superintendent who has come under attack. [Courtesy of the Cona campaign]

Just days ago, he was bemoaning a campaign to discredit a candidate he liked, staring down representatives of the NAACP at a public meeting. “It’s not fair,” he said, nearly shouting.

From the beginning, there were questions about the plan to replace Superintendent Jeff Eakins, who is retiring in June.

Board members debated whether to hire the Ray and Associates search firm, a tactic that was seen as a time saver because Ray was already doing a search for Marion County.

The firm’s approach was to take a list of priorities and prerequisites — based on surveys, board member conversations and focus group meetings — and advertise the job. People would apply. Ray’s team would use the agreed on criteria to narrow the field to about a dozen. From that pool, the board would systematically rank the candidates, based on credentials outlined in their application packets.

Here his how seven Hillsborough County School Board members ranked 13 candidates for superintendent on Tuesday in a "forced matrix" exercise. Their consultant recommended considering the top six. After a heated debate, the board added insiders Chris Farkas and Harrison Peters. One day later, Farkas dropped out. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]

But behind the scenes, there was other recruiting.

Kurt Browning, the superintendent of Pasco County, said Melissa Snively, now the board chair, contacted him more than once to try and convince him to apply. “I said no,” Browning said. “Pasco is my home.”

Cona liked Clay County Superintendent Addison Davis, who he had met at a meeting of Florida educators. He said so on Dec. 13, the day the district released the list of 51 applicants — long before Ray and Associates performed the first culling.

Others were also enthusiastic about Davis.

Rev. Glenn Dames, pastor of the Allen Temple in Ybor City and education director of the Tampa Bay Coalition of Clergy, knew him from their high school years in Jacksonville. He invited Davis to visit the church on New Year’s Eve and meet with a half-dozen African American educators and community leaders. Included in that group was Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough Branch NAACP.

“I was doing my due diligence,” Davis said. "I wanted to make sure I did my research, to ensure Hillsborough County was ready for a change agent, one that understood the dynamics of how to improve the educational experience for every child.”

Davis and Dames described the meeting as cordial and productive. Davis spoke of his accomplishments in Duval and Clay counties, and work he had done to close the achievement gap between white and minority students.

“He showed his heart for students,” Dames said.

Days later, emails circulated about problems in Clay, including unflattering data from the American Civil Liberties Union about student discipline in that district. Lewis and NAACP second vice president Joe Robinson presented copies at the beginning of Tuesday’s School Board meeting.

The Clay material was part of a larger, county-by-county ACLU report that highlighted each school district’s shortcomings. But that fact was not immediately apparent to School Board members.

“I have a concern with Clay County," member Karen Perez said. “If the superintendent is supposed to be building their bench, then what kind of bench will he be bringing here based on the information that we were provided today?” She gave Davis just one point in the ranking, out of a possible 12.

Hillsborough County School Board member Karen Perez gave candidate Addison Davis a low ranking and said she had concerns about student discipline statistics in Clay County, where he is superintendent. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

All of this was happening as board member Tamara Shamburger made a push to give consideration to Harrison Peters, the Hillsborough chief of schools. A chorus of supporters from outside the school system noted that Peters could make history, as the first superintendent of color in the majority-minority district.

Les Miller, chairman of the Hillsborough County Commission, hosted a meeting at his house of elected officials from the black community. He, Sen. Darryl Rouson, Rep. Diane Hart, Rep. Wengay Newton and Tampa City Council member Orlando Gudes all signed a letter of support. Rep. Fentrice Driskell followed with a similar letter on Peters’ behalf. All mentioned the issue of race.

“I’m confused. I’m bewildered,” Rev. Dames said, referring to the attack on Davis. “I’m disappointed, because I thought better of all those persons involved. My speculation is that passion got the best of them — their passion for Harrison Peters.”

Race became an issue in the superintendent search when six elected officials, most serving in the Legislature, sent letters to the School Board on behalf of Harrison Peters and noted that, as an African American educator, he would make history if he was chosen for the job. Hillsborough County Commission Chair Les Miller, above, said he hosted a meeting that led to the letters. [Times (2017)]

As for the lawmakers’ letters, Dames noted that Peters is not popular with the teachers union. He questioned if there was any input from the clergy or the community. “I think I’m a pretty strong constituent in those districts and nobody asked me,” he said.

But Davis’ supporters did not sit still.

Among them was Goolsby, the former teacher, who met Davis at the New Year’s Eve meeting and was impressed. She and Cona sent out pages from the ACLU report about Hillsborough’s discipline record, to counter the material about Clay.

And on Friday, they sent the Tampa Bay Times new graduation data showing African American students in Clay County are out-performing other groups.

While the idea of a superintendent search devoid of politics or personal connections might seem attractive, school board experts say it is not unexpected for some campaigning to take place.

The application packets were thick with letters of recommendation. Chris Farkas, who ultimately withdrew from consideration, had letters of support from Sheriff Chad Chronister and Hillsborough Community College President Ken Atwater.

Applicant Chris Farkas' file included a letter of endorsement from Sheriff Chad Chronister. Farkas, the deputy superintendent for operations, works closely with Chronister on school security issues. Farkas dropped out of the race on Wednesday. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

Nor is it realistic to discount the re-election campaigns of four School Board members.

The seven-member board was divided on whether to consider Farkas and Peters, who both received low ratings in the search consultant’s ranking exercise. Member Lynn Gray, who faces two opponents so far for her at-large seat, at first insisted she would not vote to include them. “I’m willing to sacrifice a little bit of popularity, perhaps, in this audience,” she said.

”And votes,” Lewis, the NAACP president, called out.

Not long after, Gray changed her position, saying she wanted to show respect to Farkas and Peters. She cast the tie-breaking vote and they were added to the semifinalist list.

Given the existence of internal friendships, alliances and endorsements, can an out-of town candidate get fair consideration?

Applicant Peter Licata, a regional superintendent from Palm Beach County, likes to think so. “You always expect the best from a board and that’s always been my stance,” he said. “Everyone who gets elected and sits in that chair wants the best for all children.”

Licata was a finalist for the superintendent job in Volusia County but lost out to Scott Fritz. There, board members made it clear that they did not want to be lobbied or solicited by their candidates.

“We took a strict hands-off policy” during the search, said Carl Persis, then the board’s chairman. “We let it be known at school board meetings we do not wish for applicants to contact us, and we took a vow that we would not contact them.”

But, he added, that did not stop some aspirants from enlisting supporters to send letters on their behalf.

Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, said in an era when popularity is measured by “likes” on social media, it’s easy for superintendent searches to become popularity contests.

“I have known of instances where that type of activity has served a candidate well,” said Messina, whose organization also runs searches. “I have known of instances where it has not served a candidate well.”

The six remaining outside candidates will travel to Hillsborough this week to attend a day of board interviews on Thursday, joining Peters, the lone insider. They will bring materials, outlining their plans for the district. Davis said he will also bring detailed information about improvements he has made in student discipline in Clay.

Cona said he is still counting on a clean search. "Ultimately we will chose the best person, not based on emotion or grandstanding, but based on facts,” he said.

But, he added, “I think it’s important that somebody who wants this job is working to get it.”

Staff Writer Jeffrey S. Solochek and correspondent William March contributed to this report.