TAMPA — Years of conflict — in the board room, on the campaign trail and behind closed doors at school district headquarters — officially came to a close Tuesday as the Hillsborough County School Board named Jeff Eakins as its next superintendent.
Eakins, just shy of his 50th birthday, signed a two-year contract that will pay him $225,000 annually to start.
"It's a win-win situation for the community and the taxpayers," said board chairwoman Susan Valdes, who clashed with Eakins' predecessor, longtime schools chief MaryEllen Elia.
No one mentioned Elia, who is on vacation until her term ends June 30. But several board members said that, with Eakins leading the district, they are confident they will see a culture shift that clearly puts students first.
"This is an amazing honor," said Eakins, whose parents traveled from Ohio to attend the meeting. "It's kind of a dream come true."
The board was criticized by business and political leaders after it voted 4-3 on Jan. 20 to dismiss Elia without cause. Its decision to hire Eakins without a national search was also second-guessed.
But a majority of board members said they did not believe they would find a candidate from outside who was as knowledgeable and respected as Eakins, a former elementary teacher and principal who ran the district's federal programs office before working as Elia's deputy.
Tuesday's vote to hire him was unanimous.
Eakins has pledged to focus on helping more students graduate and improving worker morale and customer service.
Soon after his appointment Tuesday, he tackled another priority — lessening the racial gap in student suspensions.
A district task force that has been meeting for more than a year recommended changes in the student handbook, including a bill of rights that would allow students to call a parent or advocate before an administrator moves to suspend them.
Members of the grass roots Bay Area Activist Coalition urged the board and the task force to end what is sometimes called the "school-to-prison pipeline."
Board member Doretha Edgecomb, however, asked task force members to avoid that phrase, and to speak instead of helping students set goals for themselves.
She also urged them not to dwell exclusively on the rights of students who get in trouble. "I don't know if we can talk about student rights without talking about responsibilities," she said, adding that others — including the students who don't get in trouble — have rights, too.
The board will discuss the proposals in a workshop May 12.
Task force members hope that now that they have completed this phase of their work, they will get School Board authorization to continue their work as an autonomous advisory council.
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @marlenesokol.