The Hillsborough County School Board will meet in a hastily-arranged session Friday to discuss the fate of Superintendent Addison Davis. It would be a huge mistake if elected board members use this opportunity to make Davis a scapegoat for a financial crisis he’s trying to resolve but didn’t create. The district faces many painful choices, and the sooner it confronts reality, the sooner this critical institution can get on sounder footing. Firing Davis would only distract from the problem, sap the public’s confidence and make finding a replacement more difficult.
Board chairwoman Lynn Gray would not disclose her reason Wednesday for calling the special meeting other than to say she wanted to share “new information” she obtained Monday. No board action or public comment is expected at the Friday meeting, which begins at 10:30 a.m. The meeting comes after parents and teachers have complained about staffing cuts for the coming school year. Davis and his team are moving ahead with plans to cut 1,000 positions from a workforce of more than 24,000. They hope to save some $80 million and put the district on a sustainable path to stabilize its shaky finances.
The financial woes aren’t news. Board members have long known the district has vastly overspent for years, routinely shifting tens of millions of dollars from reserves to cover annual operating expenses. Hillsborough has employed a larger workforce than peer school districts in Florida. And elected boards consistently refused to consider closing under-utilized schools, despite the potential to save millions in overhead, for fear of angering parents, teachers and powerful constituent groups.
Davis inherited this fiscal and political environment upon taking over as superintendent last year. He has made his share of mistakes, blindsiding the board on occasion and burning up precious goodwill. But nothing in the public sphere justifies his firing. The board’s criticism of him ranges from the picayune to the politically convenient. Davis can be a poor communicator and a micro-manager, and ultimately may be the wrong fit. But he is carrying out a necessarily messy job in right-sizing the budget. He is also trying to change the culture of a bureaucracy that never learned to say no. That’s not easy when your bosses are second-guessing decisions they don’t have the fortitude to make themselves.
Every resident in Tampa Bay has a stake in the success of the nation’s seventh-largest school district. As Hillsborough’s biggest employer, the school district is a major engine of the region’s economy and quality of life. The school board and superintendent should be working together to strengthen the district’s finances, enabling the public school system in a growing metropolitan area to not only survive, but thrive.
That requires a new focus on students, not only the district’s employees. And a sense of shared responsibility between the board and superintendent. Davis told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday he had “no idea” what Friday’s meeting was about. That’s inexcusable; chief executives at least deserve the courtesy to prepare. Friday’s meeting hopefully will reset the relationship. If board members have a case for removing Davis, let’s hear it. If not, let him do his job.
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