TAMPA — Jeff Eakins, a longtime Hillsborough County School District employee with a gentle manner and a vision of helping more students graduate, was selected Tuesday as the next superintendent of the nation's eighth-largest school district.
The offer is contingent on the School Board and Eakins agreeing on a contract by June 9, three weeks before superintendent MaryEllen Elia will leave the job. Elia, whom the board voted to fire on Jan. 20, begins a vacation on Friday that will last until her contract runs out June 30.
"I have always been proud and I always will be proud to say that I have served as superintendent of the Hillsborough County schools," Elia said at the end of Tuesday's meeting, her last after 10 years in the position.
Eakins, 49 and now deputy superintendent, said he wants to make sure "every student is prepared for graduation, they're prepared for after graduation, and they're prepared for life."
No details about the contract have been determined yet, including how long it would last or Eakins' salary.
Although all seven members had high praise for Eakins, the decision to hire him did not come without a heated and often confusing discussion that highlighted continuing divisions on the board.
Tuesday's 4-3 vote to hire Eakins was identical to the vote that ended Elia's tenure. Dissent came from board members Doretha Edgecomb, Carol Kurdell and Melissa Snively, who wanted to conduct a national superintendent search.
The other four thought a search would be a waste of time, given Eakins' strong qualifications and rank-and-file support. April Griffin called the search exercise "a dog and pony show." Edgecomb took offense at that characterization and Griffin apologized to her, then repeated the phrase.
Snively argued that a search was needed, both to help members agree on qualities they wanted in a leader and to restore public confidence in the board, which suffered with Elia's dismissal. "The public is who I serve, and perception is reality to the public," Snively said.
But the recently re-elected Griffin said she was unmoved by pressure from political and business leaders to conduct a search. "The political environment? Bring it," she said. "It's already been brought. And I won."
Eakins comes to the job with 25 years of experience in the district, mostly as a teacher and administrator in high-poverty elementary schools. He worked as the district's director of federal programs before Elia tapped him to join her cabinet in 2013.
In addition to working on the graduation rate, Eakins has said he hopes to address employee morale in the district.
Tuesday's agenda also included a plan to hire a search firm in the event the board did not extend Eakins the conditional offer. After the vote to hire Eakins, members struggled with the search firm issue and took a five-minute recess to regroup.
When they returned, and agreed 6-1 to shelve the search firm action, Eakins was able to react publicly to their earlier decision.
He told the three who had voted against hiring him that he fully understood their position.
He thanked his former bosses, including Elia. He grew emotional when he acknowledged his parents in Ohio, who both were educators.
He said his wife, school academic intervention specialist Peggy Jo Eakins, did not accompany him to Tuesday's meeting because they did not want to presume, or appear to be pressuring the board to hire him.
"She's been very patient," he said. "And I'll probably have to spend two hours explaining to her tonight what happened."
Contact Marlene Sokol at email@example.com or (813) 226-3356. Follow @marlenesokol.