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Hillsborough school district loses two top executives

Jenna Hodgens left the charter school office in November. Finance chief Gretchen Saunders will depart on Jan. 1.
Gretchen Saunders, left, and Jenna Hodgens have close to 60 years of experience between them in public school administration, and head statewide organizations in their specialties. Both are leaving the school district, one for another county and the other for the Hillsborough Clerk of Court's office.
Gretchen Saunders, left, and Jenna Hodgens have close to 60 years of experience between them in public school administration, and head statewide organizations in their specialties. Both are leaving the school district, one for another county and the other for the Hillsborough Clerk of Court's office. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times ]
Published Dec. 4, 2020

TAMPA — As he rebuilds the leadership ranks of the Hillsborough County School District, superintendent Addison Davis is losing two top administrators, each with decades of experience and strong reputations around the state.

Jenna Hodgens, who oversaw the district’s charter schools office during that sector’s boom years, has taken a job at the Clerk of Courts, working for newly elected county clerk and former School Board member Cindy Stuart as senior director of government relations. In that new setting, Hodgens joins other former district staffers Bonnie Lambert, who was a special assistant to the superintendent, and MaryLou Whaley, who was director of community engagement and philanthropy.

More recently, chief financial officer Gretchen Saunders disclosed she has taken the chief financial officer’s position for the St. Johns County School District.

Hodgens, 58, joined the school district in 1985. She worked in the charter schools office for most of those years, rising to the level of general director. Under her direction, the office tracked legislation affecting charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently managed, and directed their applications, openings and, in some cases, closings.

Saunders, 53, joined the district in 1996, coming from a financial job in tiny Hardee County. In Hillsborough, she oversaw financial reporting in an organization with combined budgets exceeding $3 billion a year.

Both women were controversial in some circles. Critics of charter schools accused Hodgens of being too helpful to schools that were siphoning students and resources from the traditional public school system. Hodgens said it was her responsibility to make sure the schools were well run, as ultimately all of the students are the district’s responsibility.

Saunders was caught in the crossfire when, on two occasions, the School Board was surprised to learn about sharp declines in its reserve funds. Saunders said Friday that it was always a challenge, given the immense complexity of school funding matters, to make sure the public and board were fully informed about finances.

“I was always thinking, what could I have done differently to communicate and make it easier, how can I make things better every day, how can I get information out there?” she said. “What I’m proud of is being with the students, helping to lift the students to go further, because they’re our future.”

Despite those issues, Hodgens and Saunders were also highly respected for their expertise. Hodgens was named president of the Florida Association of Charter School Authorizers. Saunders is chairwoman of the Florida School Finance Council.

Hodgens left in November and Saunders said her last day is Jan. 1. The district has not named their replacements.