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Management shake-up for Hillsborough schools includes hires from within, out-of-state

Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins, shown at Leto High in August 2015, announced changes in top district leadership on Tuesday. [Times file photo]
Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins, shown at Leto High in August 2015, announced changes in top district leadership on Tuesday. [Times file photo]
Published Jun. 29, 2016

TAMPA — Almost a year to the day since he became Hillsborough County's public school superintendent, Jeff Eakins on Tuesday introduced eight top administrators who he said would continue his mission to deliver the best possible education in a large and vastly diverse district.

To oversee eight areas of the county, he chose candidates from out of state, from other departments and from the original pool of area leaders. And a year after he created a new department for high-needs schools, he collapsed it, reasoning that the work of serving them is better done at the area offices.

The shake-up was the culmination of a year in which the School Board crafted a strategic plan that centers on a simply stated mission: "Preparing students for life."

More than a dozen longtime employees were asked to re-apply for their jobs, and Eakins grew emotional Tuesday morning as he contemplated how difficult that must have been.

But the changes were approved unanimously and, despite some pointed questions from the audience, Eakins appeared satisfied that a better year lies ahead.

"This is not about just adults," he said, responding to those who were concerned about administrators who were reassigned. "This is about 212,000 children and their needs."

Almost from the outset, Eakins has tried to decentralize much of the district's work and give area superintendents more prominence and autonomy. In his vision, downtown workers should support, not dictate to the schools and their communities.

Each of the eight area superintendents will be expected to make public appearances and meet with parents and community groups. Each will be assigned an assistant director to handle much of the office work.

Those returning to area superintendent posts, although in new territories, are Lisa Yost, Marcos Murillo and Sharon Morris. Owen Young, who spent the last year as area superintendent for the high-needs "Elevate" schools, will be a fourth area superintendent over a territory that includes two of those schools — McLane Middle and Sligh Middle.

Information and technology officer Anna Brown and Student Success director Shaylia McRae were each given an area. For the last two, Eakins hired Donell Underdue Jr., a top administrator in Chicago Public Schools, and Michelle Fitzgerald, an assistant superintendent in small district west of the Chicago.

Eakins reached across Tampa Bay in his search for a chief academic officer: That job went to Elizabeth Agresta of the Diocese of St. Petersburg schools.

The changes included several retirements. Area superintendents Henry "Shake" Washington, Sherrie Sikes and Brenda Grasso will all leave by the end of the next year.

Larry Sykes, hired last year as Eakins' chief of schools, is being transferred to a new position that will focus on parent and community involvement.

"We have to have stronger community outreach, more presence in our communities, more understanding of the needs of our communities," Eakins said.

But critics, who heard rumors of Sykes' and Young's reassignments in the past week, questioned whether Eakins' administration was committed to progress in the black community and in largely black schools. Sykes was one of the district's highest-ranking African American administrators. And Lewis Brinson announced his retirement rather than re-applying for the job of chief diversity officer.

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To replace Brinson, Eakins hired Minerva Spanner-Morrow of Canton, Ohio.

Eakins, however, said his commitment to under-served communities remains unshakable. In fact, he said, in interviewing candidates for the top job, he insisted that they have "the tenacity to advocate for every child."

Eakins also kept two cabinet members who have faced challenges in the past year. Chris Farkas will remain chief operating officer, a job that includes supervising the long-troubled transportation system. And, despite the board's confusion in 2015 about the district's reserve fund, Gretchen Saunders will remain chief business officer. As announced earlier, Stephanie Woodford will remain human resources chief.

"We've conducted national searches for all of these positions," Eakins said. "We've conducted local searches for all of these positions. And I have to say that my staff has been so professional in this process."

The reorganization is perhaps the biggest challenge Eakins undertook this year, but it's not the only one. Shortly after he took over, he learned of an operational deficit of more than $100 million, and had to correct it to save the district's credit. He was also charged with concluding a seven-year teaching reform partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In doing so, Eakins shifted the program's focus from peer evaluations to increased training and mentoring.

More recently, the district has been under pressure from those opposed to a federal directive that allows transgender students to use the school restroom of their choice. For the second time this month, dozens of speakers lined up at the afternoon board meeting to make the case that children could be traumatized or worse if they have to share restrooms and locker rooms with students of other genders.

"It opens the door for bad decisions by teenagers," said Brent Simpson, a Brandon pastor.

There were teachers too, urging the board to look out for the interest of transgender students who might not get the emotional support they need at home. And speakers on both sides of the question brought children with them.

Leeann Klumb, who has a transgender child, said, "It is not a choice, it is not an abomination to the Lord, it is not a sin."

Terry Kemple, the east Hillsborough activist who has led the campaign against transgender accommodations, turned in a stack of signed petitions and vowed to continue to press the issue.

"I'm here because I love all children, and I do emphasize all children," he said.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 810-5068 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol

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