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Finding the right school leader in Hillsborough | Editorial

The choice the school board makes for superintendent will impact the entire region.
Superintendent Jeff Eakins shares a light moment with more than 1,200 new Hillsborough County teachers and some of their mentors during a welcoming event in August 2015. He retires at the end of June. [SKIP O'ROURKE  |   Times
Superintendent Jeff Eakins shares a light moment with more than 1,200 new Hillsborough County teachers and some of their mentors during a welcoming event in August 2015. He retires at the end of June. [SKIP O'ROURKE | Times
Published Jan. 13
Updated Jan. 13

The Hillsborough County School Board faces a monumental decision as it prepares for a daylong meeting Thursday to interview the semifinalists to succeed Superintendent Jeff Eakins. As the nation’s seventh-largest school district, Hillsborough serves a large, diverse student population — and the school district’s leader plays a significant role in preparing the local workforce and shaping the regional economy. The next leader should be candid about Hillsborough’s strengths and weaknesses, adept at working in the public eye and clear-headed about the expectations of the public schools and their impact on a growing metropolitan area.

Eakins, who is retiring after 31 years with the district, had the benefit of institutional history and oversaw an important rebuilding period that leaves the school system in stronger shape. He got the district’s finances in better order, and he was instrumental in 2018 in convincing Hillsborough voters to pass a half-cent countywide sales tax for school construction and renovation, which will be critical to the growing district in the years ahead. But the district has struggled with lagging graduation rates, teacher vacancies and low reading scores. It has stumbled in several attempts to boost the quality of low-performing schools, many of them in heavily minority, urban neighborhoods.

The search for Eakins’ successor, which reached across 48 states, drew 51 applicants, and the board will interview the seven semifinalists Thursday. It’s a quality group, and the semifinalists come from a range of backgrounds. There is one internal candidate and six from outside Hillsborough.

It’s clear that Thursday’s interviews could be the deciding factor in who gets the nod. Board members need to ask the candidates some serious questions. How familiar are they with Hillsborough’s unique problems? What is their strategy for improving academic performance, especially among chronically lagging schools? How would they address racial disparities in student discipline and academic environments? How willing are they to redraw attendance boundaries to reduce school crowding and make better use of empty campus space? What role do they see for the district in growing the region’s talent base and improving its economic competitiveness? Are they comfortable with Florida’s open government laws? What’s their record in dealing with employee unions and heads of other local agencies?

Already, a group of locally elected African-American officials has called on the board to select Harrison Peters, a black administrator and the only internal semifinalist. While it is vital that the next superintendent bring more focus on racial equity, what matters most is who has the conscience and core competence to most likely achieve results.

For the school board, the hiring is a rare opportunity to consider what fresh eyes and an outside view might bring and to reassess its own commitment and sense of urgency to raising academic standards. For the community, the decision is a moment to reflect on the impact of an institution that shapes this region in every possible way, from being a major employer and property owner to the training ground for the next generation. The right candidate needs to be an advocate for all children and a driving force — on and off campus — for moving Tampa Bay forward.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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