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Thirteen top Hillsborough school administrators are asked to reapply for jobs

Hillsborough County's school superintendent Jeff Eakins is telling 13 high-ranking administrators to reapply for their jobs so he can make sure they have the correct qualifications to manage more than 200 schools and 27,000 employees. [ZACK WITTMAN | Times]
Hillsborough County's school superintendent Jeff Eakins is telling 13 high-ranking administrators to reapply for their jobs so he can make sure they have the correct qualifications to manage more than 200 schools and 27,000 employees. [ZACK WITTMAN | Times]
Published Mar. 28, 2016

TAMPA — Hillsborough County's school superintendent is telling 13 high-ranking administrators to reapply for their jobs so he can make sure they have the correct qualifications to manage more than 200 schools and 27,000 employees.

"I've told each and every one of those people I have a great amount of confidence in them," Jeff Eakins said Monday.

But, one year into leading the nation's eighth-largest school district, he said, "I just feel like I owe it to myself and the community and the organization to ensure that, come July 1, everyone has those skill sets necessary to do the work."

While Eakins is starting with the 13 administrators, who earn a combined $1.78 million a year, the changes won't end there. He said he plans to bring a reorganization plan to the board on April 12 that could affect other jobs too.

The first round of managers includes all eight area superintendents. One — Jerry Jackson, who is based in Plant City — already plans to retire. In designing the interview process to replace him, Eakins said he realized the others would benefit as the district works to provide more training and support to teachers at the schools.

"It is critical for (the area superintendent) to drive innovation, drive school improvement and support school leadership," he said. "We want to assess their skill sets, as they will be doing all those things. I anticipate many will do very well."

A ninth area superintendent is in charge of Elevate schools, a mostly urban group of schools identified for intense improvement. Owen Young, a onetime Middleton High School principal, was named in June as area superintendent of the Elevate schools.

He too must re-apply for his job.

Also affected are Chief Operating Officer Chris Farkas, Chief Business Officer Gretchen Saunders, Chief Human Resources Officer Stephanie Woodford and Chief Diversity Officer Lewis Brinson.

Most spent decades in education, typically in the Hillsborough district, but are not specialists in the work they supervise.

For example: Farkas was a social studies teacher, principal of Freedom High School and area director before he became chief operating officer in 2014. Now he's in charge of construction, maintenance and the largest transportation system in the Tampa Bay area.

Woodford was a middle school principal who worked in the information technology office when it managed a teaching reform project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Eakins said it's important to balance the value of specialized knowledge with the need to understand schools.

Brinson, who also rose through the ranks of teacher and principal, was an assistant superintendent who supervised numerous departments, including school security. He was hired out of retirement on a contract basis in 2014, when public attention was focused on racial discrepancies in student discipline.

Eakins noted that diversity is not just about race, but about many factors including culture, gender and the various ways students learn.

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School Board members have criticized the administration at various times for promoting career educators into specialty jobs. "I think the board has voiced (concern), and I think we have been pretty vocal about having the right employees in the right positions," said member Cindy Stuart.

But Eakins said he did not act because of board pressure.

"This is my decision," he said. "When you're a leader, you want to look to the right and the left of you and know that everybody is running right there with you."

The agenda for the School Board's meeting on Tuesday contained nothing about Eakins' plan. Had the Tampa Bay Times not asked him about it Monday, Eakins said he did not know if he would have discussed it publicly.

"I've talked it over with my board so they have an understanding, and I've had to meet with each individual staff person," he said. One told him, "I'm looking forward to be benchmarked against anyone else."

The possible changes come as all affected departments are involved in varying reform efforts.

Human resources is moving from the Gates system, which used peer evaluators to assess teachers, to one that relies more on mentors and training.

Eakins only recently named the seven Elevate schools, with work to begin in earnest in the next school year.

Diversity and the budget have also become critical issues.

Since 2014 the district has been under a federal investigation over allegations it discriminates against African American students in academic opportunities and discipline. And there is an ongoing efficiency audit to avoid the excessive spending that depleted the district's financial reserves between 2012 and 2015.

Eakins said he does not expect progress to be disrupted by the job interviews.

"All of my staff are consummate professionals," he said. "We're going to go through this process and keep our nose to the grindstone."

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

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