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Eight semifinalists, two camps as Hillsborough narrows superintendent search

The School Board is divided over whether the district’s next leader should be a current staffer or someone from the outside
The Hillsborough County School Board, shown at a workshop in June, narrowed the field of superintendent candidates to eight during a special meeting on Tuesday. The board's goal is to make a final decision by Jan. 21. [MARLENE SOKOL  |  Times]
The Hillsborough County School Board, shown at a workshop in June, narrowed the field of superintendent candidates to eight during a special meeting on Tuesday. The board's goal is to make a final decision by Jan. 21. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]
Published Jan. 7
Updated Jan. 7

TAMPA — Given the track record of Hillsborough County’s public school system, is it worth considering a new superintendent from inside the ranks?

School Board members argued hard on both sides of that question Tuesday as they moved into the next phase of their search to replace retiring superintendent Jeff Eakins.

They wound up adding two insiders — deputy superintendent Chris Farkas and chief of schools Harrison Peters — to the list of semifinalists, even though the pair did not survive a numerical ranking exercise. The decision also came over the strong objections of board members Stacy Hahn, Steve Cona and chairwoman Melissa Snively, all of whom gave high marks to candidate Addison Davis, the sitting superintendent of Clay County.

Here his how seven Hillsborough County School Board members ranked 13 candidates for superintendent, according to a "forced matrix" exercise. Their consultant recommended considering the top six. Internal candidates Chris Farkas and Harrison Peters were added later. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]

Davis, too, has stirred up questions and opposition. But his supporters on the board said they were motivated by a need for change, and a desire to honor the selection process.

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Is Hillsborough’s next superintendent in sight? Let the vetting begin.

Questions and answers about the superintendent search

Hillsborough school superintendent Jeff Eakins will retire in a year.

“I am willing to look outside of this building because I care about the children in this district,” said Hahn, a former education professor who is elected in South Tampa and southern Hillsborough. “We aren’t moving the needle fast enough. And you want me to now consider two people in this building who have been involved in not moving the needle fast enough? That makes no sense to me.”

Hillsborough County School Board member Stacy Hahn said the district needs a change, and inside candidates should not receive special consideration to be the next superintendent. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times staff]

Hillsborough, the nation’s seventh-largest school district, faces severe challenges and learning disparities that most severely affect its poor and African American communities. Year after year, the district leads the state in low-performing schools and shows greater-than-average numbers of students testing at the lowest levels in reading.

But those problems and disparities argue in favor of hiring someone who knows the district, not someone untested from the outside, argued board member Tamara Shamburger. She said it was “a travesty” to overlook people with expertise and first-hand knowledge of Hillsborough’s challenges.

“I’m concerned about, is this about politics? Or is this about the students?” Shamburger said.

She made a motion to consider Peters, who joined the district in 2016 and has a passion for educational equity. Cindy Stuart, the board’s longest-serving member, said they should also interview Farkas, a long-time administrator whose responsibilities include construction, transportation and maintenance.

Lynn Gray said at first that if Peters and Farkas had proven themselves, “I would have been all over it. But they haven’t. And it’s been to my frustration." But she wound up voting with Shamburger, Stuart and Karen Perez.

Perez said she wanted a pool of candidates that reflected the ethnic diversity of the district.

She also said she has questions about Clay County, based on information provided before the meeting by representatives of the Hillsborough County Branch NAACP. The documents included a report from the American Civil Liberties Union that took issue with Clay County’s student discipline statistics.

Earlier in the meeting, NAACP second vice president Joe Robinson questioned the integrity of selection process, hinting of promises and deals. And, while he did not mention Davis by name, he called the ACLU report “atrocious.”

Tuesday's School Board meeting to consider superintendent candidates attracted community members with questions about the process and the track records of some of the applicants. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]

Cona, toward the end of the meeting, rebuked the NAACP leaders and their supporters, who were sitting in the audience.

“We only got one ACLU report today, from Clay County," he said. “I didn’t see one for Texas, I didn’t see one for Colorado, and I sure as heck didn’t see one for Hillsborough County, because we’ve got problems too. That’s unfair to the process.”

Cona is running for re-election, as are Gray, Shamburger and Stuart.

The next step is for the eight semifinalists to sit for interviews with the School Board on Jan. 16. After those interviews, the board will narrow the list to two or three finalists. Another round of interviews will follow on Jan 21.

The semifinalists are:

Alexa Cunningham, the superintendent of the Salt Lake City School District since 2016. Before that, she was superintendent of the Tolleson Union High School District in Tolleson, Ariz.

Alexa Cunningham is superintendent of the public school system in Salt Lake City. [Courtesy of the Salt Lake City School District]

Addison Davis, the elected superintendent of the Clay County Schools. He is the only sitting Florida superintendent to apply for the Hillsborough position and is running for re-election. Before he joined the Clay district in 2016, he worked his way up to the chief of schools position in the Duval County district.

Addison Davis is superintendent of Clay County (Fla.) Schools. [Courtesy of Clay County District Schools]

Stephanie Elizalde, chief of schools for the Dallas Independent School District, a position she has held since 2015. She has worked as an educator in Texas since 1987.

Stephanie Elizalde is chief of schools for the Dallas Independent School District. [Twitter]

Christopher Farkas, one of two remaining candidates from within the Hillsborough school district. Now deputy superintendent under Jeff Eakins, Farkas began his career teaching social studies. He previously was principal of Tampa Bay Technical and Freedom high schools, area director and chief of operations and facilities.

Chris Farkas is a deputy superintendent for the Hillsborough County School District. [Times (2018)]

Don Haddad, superintendent of the St. Vrain Valley School District in Longmont, Colo. Haddad has held that position since 2009 and has received accolades for solving his district’s budget problems.

Don Haddad, superintendent of the St. Vrain Valley School District. [Twitter] [ST. VRAIN VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT | Handout]

Peter Licata, a regional superintendent for the Palm Beach County School District. In that job, he oversees 59 schools with about 65,000 students and more than 5,000 teachers. He took the job recently after eight years as assistant superintendent for the district’s Choice and Innovation office.

Peter Licata, area superintendent, Palm Beach County Public Schools. [Twitter]

James Mcintyre, an assistant professor of practice and director for educational leadership at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. From 2008 to 2016, he was superintendent of the Knox County Schools.

James McIntyre was formerly superintendent of Knox County Schools in Tennessee, and now is an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee. [Courtesy of the University of Tennessee]

Harrison Peters, chief of schools for Hillsborough County. He joined the district in 2016 after working in Houston, Chicago and Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

Harrison Peters, chief of schools for Hillsborough County, shown during a visit to Potter Elementary School. [Times (2016)]

Five applicants made the first round of 13, but will not be allowed to continue: George Thomas of Georgia, Randy Johnson of Denver, Lawrence Martin of Tampa, Alberto Vazquez of Hartford, Conn., and Saundra Johnson Austin, an education consultant.

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