TAMPA — For the first time in more than half a century, the Hillsborough County School Board is poised to hire a superintendent from outside the school district ranks.
Addison Davis, Peter Licata and Don Haddad emerged from a day of interviews Thursday as finalists to replace Jeff Eakins, who is retiring, effective June 30.
The three will continue on for another day of interviews on Jan. 21.
In choosing among seven semifinalists, the board rejected both women in the group —Alexa Cunningham of Salt Lake City and Stephanie Elizalde of Dallas — and the lone internal candidate, Hillsborough Chief of Schools Harrison Peters.
Board member Tamara Shamburger gave Peters the highest rating possible, at six points. She cast the lone dissenting vote when the board approved the top three.
Davis, 43, who has spent most of his life and career in Northeast Florida, leads the A-rated Clay County School District. He got six-point ratings from board members Lynn Gray, Karen Perez, Melissa Snively, Stacy Hahn and Steve Cona. He spoke passionately about equity in the schools, saying the person in charge of getting schools off the state’s "D" and "F" list should report directly to the superintendent.
Davis is also running for re-election to keep his job in Clay.
Near the end of his interview, he asked, “Can I just say thank you for the opportunity? Sorry to be fired up. But I love the job.”
Licata, a regional superintendent for The School District of Palm Beach County, drove home an important point: Palm Beach, which is similar to Hillsborough in size and demographics, is an "A" district. Hillsborough has had a "B" for the last four years.
Licata, 55, made a case for stronger literacy instruction in the youngest years. “Do we want kids in third grade who can’t read?” he asked.
When asked about challenges that lie ahead in public education, he said, “We’d better be very deliberate in how we spend our money. We spend a lot of money, but we waste a lot of money.” He got a six-point rating from board member Cindy Stuart.
Haddad, 58, is superintendent of the St. Vrain Valley School District in Colorado. He spoke of an extended school year in his district for students who struggle with reading, and received four- or five-point ratings from most board members.
When asked about mental health services, he spoke of the impact of the 1999 Columbine shootings, and extensive supports now offered to students of all ages. "Because it is really important that their mindset is strong and they understand how much we care about them,” he said.
The process until now has been fraught with discord in the community and on the board. Those tensions flared at the beginning of Thursday’s day-long session, with Shamburger trying to get clarification on the role of Ray and Associates, the board’s search firm.
Chairwoman Melissa Snively cut Shamburger off in this early part of the session, saying she was out of order.
But six hours later, when the board had the opportunity to discuss their impressions of the candidates before voting, nothing was said.
The Ray and Associates team presented the totals: 35 points to Davis, 30 to Licata and 26 to Haddad. With that, the board voted and Snively adjourned the meeting. The finalists were to meet with community members during a special event Thursday evening.