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Former Hillsborough Superintendent Earl Lennard dies at 77

Raised in East Hillsborough, Lennard weathered some of the school district’s biggest challenges and also served as supervisor of elections.
Former Hillsborough County Public Schools superintendent Earl Lennard, shown here in 2009 after he was named the county's new supervisor of elections by Gov. Charlie Christ.
Former Hillsborough County Public Schools superintendent Earl Lennard, shown here in 2009 after he was named the county's new supervisor of elections by Gov. Charlie Christ. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Dec. 24, 2019
Updated Dec. 25, 2019

RIVERVIEW — Earl Lennard, a respected Hillsborough County Public Schools superintendent who later served as supervisor of elections, died at the age of 77 on Monday.

The school district said the longtime Riverview resident died after a prolonged illness.

“We are all heartbroken to learn of the passing of Dr. Earl Lennard,” Superintendent Jeff Eakins said in a statement. “His impact on our school district and community was immeasurable.”

Colleagues described Dr. Lennard as both highly intellectual — he earned a doctoral degree in education from the University of South Florida — and approachable, with a down-home, country style of speech that came from his upbringing in rural East Hillsborough County.

He served as superintendent from 1996 until 2005, winning the position even though — as with today’s superintendent search — there were some on the School Board who wanted to hire from outside the district.

Retired school administrator Bill Person said Dr. Lennard could move easily among East Hillsborough farmers and Tampa’s urban dwellers. The family lived in Palmetto Beach while Dr. Lennard’s father served in the military, Person said. As a young man, Dr. Lennard spent much of his time in Ybor City.

He was a great storyteller, Person said. Dr. Lennard once described for Person a business he and his friends launched when they were very young, installing and removing the wooden stakes that farmers used to keep Ruskin’s heavy tomatoes upright until harvest. “When all is said and done, I think they lost money on the deal,” Person said.

Dr. Lennard earned his bachelor’s degree as a member of USF’s first graduating class in 1963. He told a radio reporter in 2014 that he originally wanted to be an attorney. But he took a teaching job at Ruskin Elementary School to save up for law school and fell in love with the teaching profession.

School Board member Lynn Gray was one of Dr. Lennard’s students in a psychology class at East Bay High School.

“He was a great teacher," she said. “He was very dynamic, engaged, and he simply loved the students. He loved teaching. He loved the teaching part of it. I know that everybody wanted his class."

Over the years, Dr. Lennard moved up the ranks as an administrator in charge of agricultural and vocational programs.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White, who also served on the school board, is a distant relative of Lennard’s. The two did not know each other well until White, a pharmacist, went into politics. Then they became very close.

“I can remember very vividly, a classic Dr. Lennard quote," White said. “When I first decided to get into this business, he said, 'You know, Stacy, you are going to have to learn how to swim with the sharks and not get eaten.’”

When he became superintendent in 1996, Dr. Lennard grappled with some of the biggest challenges the district has faced.

Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Earl Lennard talks with students during his annual student press conference, held in 2005 at Brandon High School.
Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Earl Lennard talks with students during his annual student press conference, held in 2005 at Brandon High School. [ O'ROURKE, SKIP | St. Petersburg Times ]

Court-ordered busing for desegregation was coming to an end, and the district needed a system of voluntary desegregation to replace it. Magnet schools and the choice system happened on his watch. It was also a time of runaway population growth with the development of Westchase, New Tampa and other prosperous new communities. One school year, Person said, 13 new schools opened on the first day of class.

After Dr. Lennard left as superintendent in 2005, he made a brief run for a state senate seat that was being vacated by Republican Tom Lee. But two months later, Dr. Lennard pulled out. He said he wanted to devote more time to his family, which had grown to include two adult children who made careers in the school system; and grandchildren. The district named Ruskin’s Lennard High School in his honor.

Lennard High, shown in 2016, is named for Dr. Earl Lennard, former Superintendent of Schools.
Lennard High, shown in 2016, is named for Dr. Earl Lennard, former Superintendent of Schools. [ LOREN ELLIOTT | Tampa Bay Times ]

In 2009, Gov. Charlie Crist appointed Dr. Lennard as Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections to replace Phyllis Busansky, who died while in office. He served out the rest of Busansky’s term and then ran, unopposed, for the following four-year term.

Away from public service, the former superintendent maintained close ties with school district leadership. There was talk that, if Eakins were to step down, Dr. Lennard could serve as an interim replacement.

Hillsborough County Supervisor of Election Earl Lennard talks with Sylvia Gonzalez outside the West Tampa Convention Center after she voted in 2010. Dr. Lennard  visited several polling places checking results and trouble shooting any problems that might come up on election day.
Hillsborough County Supervisor of Election Earl Lennard talks with Sylvia Gonzalez outside the West Tampa Convention Center after she voted in 2010. Dr. Lennard visited several polling places checking results and trouble shooting any problems that might come up on election day. [ ALLEN, WILLIE J. JR | St. Petersburg Times ]

In 2018, when voters approved a half-cent sales tax referendum for school capital needs, Dr. Lennard was named to the tax’s seven-member oversight committee.

By then, his health was beginning to fail. Committee meetings began with updates on his condition.

Members of Dr. Lennard’s family did not return requests for comment.

Dr. Lennard’s biography, on a web page for the referendum, says he also served as president of the Hillsborough County Fair, an adjunct professor at USF, and interim Executive Director of the Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce.

White remembers the stint at the chamber of commerce. “That was not a career move,” he said.

“He loved this community. The need was there for his leadership. He was always happy to lend his time to those who needed him.”