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Hillsborough School Board delays superintendent search, will vote on a contract for Eakins

Hillsborough’s deputy school superintendent, Jeff Eakins, 49, is a 25-year veteran of the district.
Hillsborough’s deputy school superintendent, Jeff Eakins, 49, is a 25-year veteran of the district.
Published Feb. 18, 2015

TAMPA — Jeff Eakins, the deputy Hillsborough County school superintendent who was admired by both sides of a warring School Board, will likely be offered a contract to lead the district next month.

Board members voted unanimously Tuesday to negotiate an agreement with Eakins, 49, before its next meeting on March 3. They also put a hold on plans to conduct a national search to replace MaryEllen Elia, who was fired on Jan. 20.

"Do I want to serve this district? Absolutely, 100 percent," Eakins said when board member April Griffin asked if he was interested in an immediate contract.

His only hesitation was that the effects of his leadership might not be clear after just one year.

But, he said, "My goal is to lead this district. Certainly, my heart is here in Hillsborough County."

Details about the contract, including how long it would last and what the job would pay, have not been decided.

Tuesday's vote is just the latest turn in a chain of events that began after the November elections, when speculation arose that the board might move against Elia, who has held the job for 10 years.

By a 4-3 vote, members decided to terminate her contract, effective June 30.

Since then, many have assumed that Eakins would serve as acting superintendent while the board conducted a fast-tracked search, using an outside firm. An item asking for search firm information was up for a vote on Tuesday's meeting agenda.

But Sally Harris, a new board member who cast the deciding vote to fire Elia, pre-empted the search firm vote by suggesting the board give Eakins a one-year contract.

She said that she based her decision on feedback from constituents who say the district needs stability. "A rushed national search for this new superintendent simply could put our district at risk," she said.

The discussion then turned to whether the contract should be for one year, or longer. Carol Kurdell, one of four board members who face re-election in 2016, argued against conducting a search during a campaign season. "It gets crazy," she said.

Doretha Edgecomb assured the others that whether they conduct a national search or hire from within, they will face criticism. "There's no winning in this," she said.

And Griffin reminded them that, as well liked as Eakins is, he would scare away potential applicants who "might think he is the heir apparent."

What they all agree on is that Eakins, a 25-year district employee, has attributes that are needed to improve employee morale, smooth relations with dissatisfied parents and ease the discord between Elia loyalists and the faction of the board that voted to fire her.

Griffin, one of Elia's harshest critics, said people tell her often that they are relieved Eakins is on deck.

Kurdell, one of Elia's strongest supporters, said of Eakins: "He has the ability to hear people, he listens and he gets the job done."

A native of rural Ohio, Eakins is a son of educators who moved to Hillsborough in 1989 with his wife, an academic intervention specialist at Booker T. Washington Elementary School.

He was an elementary schoolteacher and principal, then the district's director of federal programs, a job that involved helping high-poverty schools get access to tens of millions of federal dollars.

His rise through Elia's Cabinet began in 2013, when he was tapped to oversee safety improvements for the district's special-needs students. As deputy superintendent, he served as liaison between Elia and the board.

Contact Marlene Sokol at msokol@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3356.