TAMPA — An 80-page survey presented Friday to embattled Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis offers a relentlessly harsh view of his 14 months on the job, just days before his bosses on the School Board will meet to craft a plan for how he can improve.
The survey, conducted by the Hillsborough Association of School Administrators, polled principals, assistant principals and others in the administrative ranks, including those who work at school district headquarters downtown.
The results were shared during an emergency meeting of School Board members, who were already concerned about morale among district employees.
The superintendent “has demonstrated a disregard for our input over and over again,” wrote one survey respondent.
“He has no trust, belief, appreciation or respect for Hillsborough people,” wrote another.
Some went on for multiple paragraphs about one-sided communication, delayed instructions on important initiatives, and a belief that Davis is more concerned about his political future than educating children.
They said he trusts the leaders he recruited from Clay and Duval counties, where he used to work, but not the many who have worked in Hillsborough for decades. They blasted him for a blunder on April 16 that he later said he regretted, when 91 teachers learned through a batch email that their jobs will end this summer.
This was the material board chairwoman Lynn Gray intended to share when she called Friday’s meeting on short notice this week. “The actual survey, in my mind, provides just cause versus hearsay,” she said.
Among the statistics: 77 percent of those surveyed either disagree or strongly disagree that Davis “has made a sustained, honest and sensitive effort to address district and school leaders’ concerns.”
Sixty-five percent disagree or strongly disagree that Davis can lead the district through a financial crisis so severe that the state threatened Thursday to place it in financial receivership.
Board member Henry “Shake” Washington cautioned his fellow members against reading too much into the results because of the way the survey was conducted. The administrators’ association emailed it to recipients at their private addresses. It was possible to share the link, which meant a person could take the survey more than once, from different devices.
Ray Bonti, the association’s executive director, said it was necessary to conduct the survey this way to guarantee anonymity among respondents who, in some cases, were afraid to participate.
He defended the survey despite the possibility of duplicate responses. “We wouldn’t have had 69 pages of comments if people weren’t invested into that survey,” he said.
The other board members dismissed Washington’s concerns because, having visited many schools this past year, they found the comments matched what staff have been sharing with them.
“This survey is another data point to support our concerns,” board member Stacy Hahn said.
“To say it was a surprise would be unfair,” added Jessica Vaughn, who has emerged as a vocal critic of Davis. She said the comments felt “like a gut punch” because staff worked so hard to keep schools open during the pandemic.
Board member Karen Perez said that, having struggled to get information about executive pay, she can empathize with those who filled out the survey. “I feel like your staff does when it comes to lack of communication,” she said.
Gray gave Davis a chance to defend himself. After stating briefly that he was concerned about the survey’s lack of controls, he spoke for 16 minutes about his record since joining the district in early 2020.
He described the early days of the pandemic, which hit just as he was arriving. “There was no playbook. There was no research. There was no exemplar,” he said.
He took the board through the spring distribution of laptops and packaged meals, the planning that went into the August reopening, the collaboration with public health professionals and the struggles along the way to contend with the district’s massive operating deficit.
“Steps that as a superintendent I would never make have come to a reality,” he said, referring largely to more than 1,000 job cuts. But to avoid a state takeover, he said, “tough decisions have had to be made.”
Friday’s meeting might have led the board to take preliminary steps to end its relationship with Davis.
But, less than 24 hours before the meeting, Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran hit the board with a stern warning letter that demanded a detailed financial recovery plan within 20 days.
With that deadline looming, the board spent nearly half of Friday’s meeting discussing possible solutions to the financial crisis. And at the upcoming Tuesday workshop, which was called to draft Davis’ professional development plan, they will also need to devote some time to Corcoran’s order.
Davis, during his remarks, vowed to take the principals’ comments to heart and be reflective as he works to improve his relationship with the board and workforce. “We’ll be able to look and dive in and listen, learn and grow,” he said.
Board member Melissa Snively said that was the important part, not the long history Davis recited.
“I think most people tuned you out about half way through that speech,” she said. “I think people just want you to acknowledge how they feel right now and apologize for the mistakes that you made and promise us that you’re going to do better. That’s all you really had to say, and we’ll go from there.”