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