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'Servant leadership' would be the focus of new team running Hillsborough schools

Alberto Vazquez Matos is coming from a Catholic diocese to Hillsborough schools.
Alberto Vazquez Matos is coming from a Catholic diocese to Hillsborough schools.
Published Jun. 6, 2015

TAMPA — Jeff Eakins could have chosen from more than a dozen top administrators to help him chart a new course for Hillsborough County Public Schools.

Instead, he went outside the district, tapping a 40-year-old Catholic school administrator who shares his belief in a concept called "servant leadership."

"I embrace it in this way," said Alberto Vazquez Matos, now superintendent of schools for the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.

"If I am the superintendent or the chief of staff, it doesn't mean that I have more power. It means that I have more responsibility to give of myself to meet the needs of the people I work with and the people I serve. It's not putting myself first."

Vazquez's appointment as Eakins' chief of staff, a new position, will come before the School Board on Tuesday for a vote.

Chairwoman Susan Valdes, texting from a high school graduation, has already signaled her approval. "Historical!" she said. "I'm so excited."

Vazquez was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in the Bronx. He credits his mother, who was single when she arrived in New York with Vazquez and his sister, for his early career success.

"She's a champion," he said. "She knew that the only way I was to succeed in this complex society was through education. She engraved that in my mind and in my heart. She constantly reminded me to do well and to be honest and to be kind."

As a child who spoke English as a second language, Vazquez said he also had to try that much harder.

He was a dean at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx at 26, an associate superintendent for the Brooklyn diocese at 33. He was one of the youngest Catholic superintendents ever when he landed the job in the St. Petersburg diocese, which spans five counties and includes more than 50 schools.

He made his mark by introducing methods used in public schools, such as centralized administrative support, strategic planning, professional development and benchmarks, said Michael Tkacik, the diocese's secretary for ministries.

But he did it "without compromising our mission of evangelization," Tkacik said.

Early on, Vazquez met Eakins, then director of federal programs for the Hillsborough district. One of Eakins' responsibilities was to make sure private and parochial schools received their fair share of grant dollars. "He was always so kind and so supportive," Vazquez said.

Years later, learning that Bishop Robert Lynch was preparing to retire, Vazquez contemplated his next career move. He had a doctoral degree. He was teaching college courses, already somewhat immersed in the world of public education.

He applied to be principal of Alonso High School near his home in Town 'N Country. He didn't get the job. But his application remained active and he was considered to lead Hillsborough High School. He didn't get that job either.

But he did get a call a couple of months ago from Eakins, who was preparing to take over after the firing of longtime superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

"He started to explain his leadership style and the vision he had for the district," said Vazquez, who found Eakins' belief in servant leadership unusual for public education. "That mentality, that philosophy is refreshing, I think," he said.

Tkacik, who has never met Elia, said he spoke with Eakins once and was struck by his humble, low-key demeanor.

Vazquez's temperament is very similar, he said. "Gentle is a good word. Upbeat. He is always even-tempered and fair. But he is a visionary."

Vazquez's appointment is one of several the board will consider Tuesday. For his deputy superintendent, Eakins has selected Van Ayres, a Jefferson High School principal who, like Vazquez, is 40.

The plan calls for assistant superintendent Larry Sykes, 54, to be chief of schools, a position that would place him over eight area superintendents who, in turn, would supervise the principals and their staffs.

The St. Petersburg diocese will conduct a national search to replace Vazquez, Tkacik said. Associate superintendent Elizabeth Agresta will run the system in the interim.

"We are going to miss him," Tkacik said.

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