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Hillsborough School Board member: Can we fire superintendent Addison Davis?

Some constituents want to see it happen. But the board has agreed to draft an improvement plan instead.
On social media over the weekend, Hillsborough County School Board member Jessica Vaughn asked if there might be enough votes to fire district superintendent Addison Davis.
On social media over the weekend, Hillsborough County School Board member Jessica Vaughn asked if there might be enough votes to fire district superintendent Addison Davis. [ Times (2020) ]
Published Apr. 19
Updated Apr. 20

TAMPA — Hillsborough County superintendent Addison Davis survived what could have been a call for his dismissal on Monday, but not without incurring criticism from his School Board, which will now draft a document laying out their expectations for him.

The professional development plan, as some are calling it, will be worked on Tuesday, April 27, at a 9:30 a.m. workshop.

It follows an outpouring of criticism over the way the district notified nearly 100 teachers that their jobs would not exist after the end of this school year. Teachers learned the news Friday in a batch email that began with the phrase: “Dear HCPS Educator.” Some said their principals did not know they were being dismissed. They thought their jobs were safe after April 9, when 1,000 other job cuts were announced.

The email said the teachers were not eligible to find new positions during the transfer and pool periods for longtime employees. They were advised to check back after mid-May to see if retirements or resignations had created any openings.

A union grievance filed Sunday called the emails “callous” and “appalling,” describing them as vague, unsigned and generic in tone. The messages “failed to show any gratitude for the employee working through a pandemic or regret for ‘having to’ take such a drastic action,” the grievance said.

On Facebook, constituents asked board member Jessica Vaughn what it would take to fire Davis, who has been on the job since March of 2020.

Vaughn explained the need for a board majority, then posted: “Take a poll of your current board members and ask them who would vote to end the superintendent’s contract. Let me know if we have the votes. I can’t ask the other board members or I would violate sunshine laws. Call them up, ask them privately. If you think we have the votes, send me a private message.”

Davis said Monday that Friday’s email to employees — 91, by his count — was not handled properly. “As superintendent, I have to own that,” he said.

Those affected include Stacie Emory, a music teacher at Bryan Elementary School in Plant City. Her husband, a music teacher at Madison Middle School, got an email too, she said.

Emory said that, because of a stipend her husband receives for leading the school band, he was able to keep his job.

She was not. “My husband and I moved here from Colorado because of the reputation of the music programs in Hillsborough County,” she said. “We have no family here. It’s devastating.”

Teachers such as Emory are considered “one-year contract” employees because they were hired after 2011, when tenure rights were discontinued under state law.

However, Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the teachers’ union, said that, until now, the district has not dismissed these teachers unless there were performance issues. Those issues are explained during a process called “re-nomination,” and disclosed before March 31.

The district’s financial struggles are not new. After a prior board fired superintendent MaryEllen Elia in 2015, her successor, Jeff Eakins, learned that the district’s main reserve account had lost more than $200 million, largely because of a new pay plan that coincided with a teaching reform experiment.

Eakins made some moves to rein in spending. But the low reserve remained an issue.

A study by the Council of the Great City Schools found supervisors were filling jobs that were not funded. The district was using capital accounts to shore up its operational budget. Compared to other Florida districts, Hillsborough was overstaffed by 3,000 employees. The way things were going, Davis and deputy superintendent Michael Kemp said, the district would run out of money this spring, spurring a possible state takeover.

Davis said the new round of cuts happened when district leaders discovered last week that, because of other cuts and a limited number of positions in the hiring pool, they could not guarantee placement to the newer employees.

He said he spent the latter part of the week trying to find more than $8.4 million to pay the teachers, with no success, and that he was able to reduce the number affected from 114 to 91.

As for the growing social media campaign against him, Davis said: “I was hired to transform Hillsborough County. And in that process, we had to make some very difficult decisions. We changed instructional focus. We changed instructional frameworks. We’ve increased accountability. I led this district through a pandemic, successfully. And on top of that I’m facing budget downfalls over and over again. And while you’re cutting 2,000 people it’s hard to build relationships. It’s hard to build trust.”

Vaughn said Davis’ actions have caused an erosion of trust between him and the board. “I don’t feel this board is directing the superintendent,” she said. “I feel like the superintendent is pretty much doing whatever he wants. And maybe he tells us and maybe he doesn’t.”

Music educators Stacie and Jason Emory received emails on Friday saying they were losing their jobs with the Hillsborough County school system. Jason Emory managed to keep his job. Stacie Emory is holding out hope that she can, too. [Courtesy of Stacie Emory]
Music educators Stacie and Jason Emory received emails on Friday saying they were losing their jobs with the Hillsborough County school system. Jason Emory managed to keep his job. Stacie Emory is holding out hope that she can, too. [Courtesy of Stacie Emory]

During a long discussion Monday about members’ frustrations with Davis, however, Vaughn did not call for his dismissal. Instead, she joined the others in agreeing to hold him to the document they will prepare next week.

Related: Hear the Hillsborough School Board's discussion Monday about Superintendent Addison Davis.

“I think we all agree we want you to succeed,” Vaughn told Davis, after telling him earlier, “you might not be a good fit for our district.”

Several said Davis is too much of a micro-manager, insisting on communicating nearly all information with the workforce. They said that habit, coupled with his assembling of a cabinet from his last post in Clay County, makes it difficult for longtime Hillsborough administrators to trust him.

“I think the problem with morale is not COVID, and it’s not even the financial situation,” said Nadia Combs. “It’s the way top leadership communicates.”

Henry “Shake” Washington said he is concerned about minority assistant principals who lost their jobs this month. And, like most of the others, he was horrified about the Friday email blast. “I’ve talked to 14 principals already. They’re very upset,” he said. “This is a severe hit and this is something that is hard to overcome.”

Member Melissa Snively defended Davis, saying he was hired to make profound changes in the district and his work during the pandemic was “Herculean.” She blasted Vaughn for the Facebook post.

“You were trying to count votes to get rid of this man,” Snively said. “This is a human being. Our teachers absolutely deserve respect. But so does this man.”

Karen Perez, after agreeing for the need to set clear expectations, warned Davis, “I intend to hold you accountable.”