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Consultants blitz through Hillsborough before searching for a superintendent

Using public meetings and a survey, they’re painting a picture of the ideal school leader.

TAMPA — The next superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools will inherit a teacher shortage, fears of school shootings, frustration with special education and reading levels that, at some schools, are among the lowest in the state.

The search firm hired by the School Board to help replace Jeff Eakins is sifting through interview and survey results to prioritize these and other issues before advertising for the next district leader.

Getting people to weigh in has been a challenge. Participation was so low in an online survey — fewer than 2,000 responses as of Friday — that the school district extended the deadline until 8 a.m. Monday.

RELATED STORY: Hillsborough school superintendent Jeff Eakins will retire in a year

At a series of town hall meetings at high schools last week, the turnout varied. It was especially low at Jefferson High School, where most in the room were journalists, translators, administrators or staff from the consulting firm. At other sessions, there were enough guests for lively discussions about mental health, minority concerns, and how to get good teachers in front of those children who need the most help.

Ryan Ray, president of the search firm, said he believes the job Eakins is leaving in June is an attractive one.

“I have actually had conversations with several superintendents, from the East Coast to the West Coast, and they are very interested in this position,” Ray said at Jefferson. “This is something that people are really taking a look at. And they are positive about it.”

The search has not been without hiccups.

Board members disagreed at first on whether to enter into a “piggyback” contract with Ray and Associates, meaning they would replicate an existing contract in Marion County, which also needs a new school leader. Member Cindy Stuart wanted to do a fresh search. Melissa Erickson, who works extensively with the district through her Alliance for Public Schools, agreed, remarking last week that “Superintendent Eakins gave us the grace of a year.”

Hillsborough County School Board member Cindy Stuart is waiting to see the candidate pool as the district searches for its next superintendent. [WALLACE, DANIEL | Tampa Bay Times]

But, with the decision made, Stuart and Erickson are now waiting to see who emerges as the recruiting begins. Names are being suggested — including former deputy superintendent Alberto Vazquez, Pinellas superintendent Michael Grego, Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning and Hillsborough assistant superintendent Tracye Brown.

At the four high school-based meetings, the Ray team attempted to gauge community concerns. Guests said they worry that not enough young adults are pursuing careers in teaching. They wondered if Eakins’ successor will continue with his Achievement Schools initiative, which seeks to improve student outcomes at 50 long-struggling schools.

RELATED STORY: Hillsborough School Board members ask: How soon should Achievement Schools see results?

Participants called for better service to the families of special needs students. “A parent gets lost when they have a complaint,” Susan Mason said during Wednesday’s session at Gaither High. As for teacher preparation, she said, “the training is almost pathetic from the school district.”

Students spoke of tobacco addiction and the need to protect those in the LGBTQ community. Hispanic community leaders noted the continued migration from Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico.

With charter schools now educating nearly 13 percent of Hillsborough students, people opposed to these tax-funded schools called for a leader who will fight the encroachment. “This superintendent has to be committed fully to public, traditional public schools,” said Bill Person, a retired administrator who ran unsuccessfully for School Board.

A common theme, at the town halls and separate focus groups, was the need for someone who will champion public education. “They want someone who’s going to advocate for this district in Tallahassee,” said Erickson, who attended multiple sessions.

As for her issues, Erickson said she would want each candidate to articulate a position and track record in school turnaround.

“We have more failing schools than any other district in the state of Florida. Why?” she would ask, looking for someone who had done the research. “What’s your plan to address that urgent need? What’s your change management strategy? What is your philosophy of allocation for resources? With which equity lens do you look at public education? And most importantly, why Hillsborough?”

Participants were divided on whether the candidate should be an insider — like Eakins and his three predecessors — or from outside the district.

They asked if the firm was looking for someone who had already been a superintendent. Ray told the Jefferson group, “I think that’s critically important. I’m not looking at an assistant superintendent for this job. This district is too big and too massive. Whoever comes in has to have sat in that big chair and made big decisions.”

Turnout was sparse, but discussions were lively as Hillsborough residents discussed their desires for the next public schools superintendent. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

But the reality, school board attorney Jim Porter said, is that Ray does not have the authority to make that call. Ultimately, the board can select someone Ray suggests, choose someone else or extend the search.

If all goes according to the schedule, the board will discuss next steps at a meeting Oct. 2. An advertisement will go out. Applicants will have until Dec. 11. Because state public records laws make discretion impossible, most can be expected to apply near the end of that day, Ray said.

From that point, Ray described a series of steps and board interviews to cull the applicant pool to about a dozen, then a half dozen, then two or three, then one. Barring a setback, he said, the top candidate will be revealed in late January.

The team wrapped up its town hall meetings Thursday at Middleton, a magnet high school in the heart of low-income East Tampa. There, as in other schools, participants raised issues of equity and cultural sensitivity.

Tina Williams, a parent and advocate, said she wants a superintendent who will put students first in all decisions. “I think a lot of people at times forget about what we do and why we do it,” she said.