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Hillsborough chooses a new school superintendent: Addison Davis.

The School Board’s vote is unanimous for Davis, who calls himself “an accelerator.”
Addison Davis, the superintendent of Clay County District Schools, was chosen Tuesday as the new Hillsborough County school superintendent.
Addison Davis, the superintendent of Clay County District Schools, was chosen Tuesday as the new Hillsborough County school superintendent. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Jan. 21, 2020
Updated Jan. 22, 2020

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School Board voted unanimously Tuesday to hire Addison Davis as superintendent, impressed by his energy and convinced that, among three finalists, he is best equipped to give students of all backgrounds a quality education.

The 43-year-old superintendent of Clay County schools earned 13 points in a School Board ranking exercise, more than twice as many as the next of the three, St. Vrain Valley, Colo., superintendent Don Haddad. Palm Beach County Regional Superintendent Peter Licata trailed the group with just two points.

“You’ve seen my fight and you’ve seen my tenacity,” Davis told board members after they interviewed him individually in private sessions, and then publicly as a group. “Hillsborough County wants and needs an accelerator. I’m the leader ready to do this. When you talk about the next step, Addison Davis isn’t a hypothetical.”

Davis will take over for Jeff Eakins, who retires effective June 30. He will lead the nation’s seventh-largest district, which has mounting challenges — from chronically low reading scores to budget problems, a steady migration of families to charter schools and a projected tsunami of growth that will require the construction of dozens of new schools in the next 15 years.

Before he can tackle these challenges, he must negotiate contract terms with board attorney Jim Porter. The district expects to pay Davis approximately $300,000. He must also arrange an exit from his job in Clay County, where he is now a candidate for re-election.

“I love Clay County,” he said. But, with more than 220,000 students compared to 39,000 in Clay, the Hillsborough job is “a game changer."

As Hillsborough has not hired a superintendent from outside since 1967, Davis’ arrival could be disruptive to the district’s more than 200 schools and its workforce of nearly 25,000.

Answering questions after the board meeting, Davis said he wants to keep an open mind about personnel matters until he has gotten to know the district and staff. “My job is to listen and learn, to figure out what’s working, what’s not, and what we can do differently,” he said.

He made one specific assurance in the 90-day plan that all finalists were required to submit: He wants whoever is in charge of the district’s highest-needs schools to report directly to him. That job must be filled, with Assistant Superintendent Tricia McManus — who oversees 50 Achievement schools — leaving the district at the end of the school year.

Davis talked of the need for efficiency, and his desire to build up the district’s financial reserves. He said it is too early to say what those efforts will mean for employment.

A father of two daughters who spent most of his career in the Duval County school system, Davis is a Republican who is not afraid to push back against excessive student testing and inadequate state funding.

He starts his work day visiting schools, and plans to do the same in Hillsborough. “I will be in the classroom every day as superintendent, from 7:30 a.m. until noon,” he said. “Dialogue with Davis,” a schedule of chats with employee groups, are another tradition he said he will import.

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Judging by scores on the board’s ranking exercises, Davis was the frontrunner heading into Tuesday’s series of interviews.

But he had to overcome resistance from community members who wanted the job to go to Chief of Schools Harrison Peters. And there were last minute questions from charter school critics. Members of the League of Women Voters placed phone calls Tuesday to School Board members about contributions to Davis’ Clay campaign from a committee with charter school backing.

Board member Lynn Gray, a critic of the charter industry, said she and Davis discussed charters during their private meeting. He assured her he is "not obligated to any corporate entity,” and won her confidence.

He also convinced board member Tamara Shamburger that he can “bridge the divide that this community has experienced” as people took sides on his candidacy. With that assurance, and wanting the board to be unified in its decision, Shamburger cast her vote with the other six.