The surprise resignation Thursday of Superintendent Addison Davis adds to the turmoil facing the Hillsborough County School District. Davis’ three years were a mixed bag, but he saw the nation’s seventh-largest school system through the pandemic, and succeeded in making Hillsborough finally address its profligate spending and the costly waste of operating half-empty schools. The school board needs a successor who can build on Davis’ agenda as the district navigates a fast-changing educational landscape.
Davis, 47, announced during a morning administrative meeting that he would resign effective July 14. While his next move is unclear, Davis is rumored as a contender for the superintendent’s job in Duval County, where he enjoyed a long career prior to being hired by the Hillsborough district in 2020.
Davis can claim some meaningful accomplishments, from navigating the school bureaucracy through the uncertainty of COVID to improving graduation rates and reducing the number of poorly performing schools. He steered Hillsborough away from what could have resulted in state receivership by cutting expenses, limiting hiring and squeezing efficiencies from school contracts and operations. More recently, Davis secured the four votes necessary from the seven-member school board to close half-empty Just Elementary, and he appears in line to win that same margin Tuesday in a final vote to close four more heavily unused campuses.
But Davis struggled at times, too, as a school system nakedly insular adapted to a boss from the outside. A former elected superintendent in Clay County, Davis at times got ahead of the Hillsborough board that appointed him. The pandemic restricted his ability to forge civic connections early on, and within only a year, three of the seven board members who hired him had left the governing body. Davis said he also came to realize that Hillsborough’s finances were more dire than he originally imagined. Hillsborough voters rejected a referendum last year that called for a local property surtax to support teacher pay raises. And the district is only now emerging from its controversial school-closure plan, which Davis had to downsize repeatedly to win even a slim board majority.
Davis leaves the Hillsborough system a better place, but his departure leaves a major void at an increasingly critical time. The school closure plan may buy Hillsborough only several years as students continue to leave traditional public classrooms for charters and as Florida’s expanded public voucher program makes private school options more affordable.
Student head counts mean money, and it’s likely Hillsborough will continue to see vacancies in urban schools while the southeast suburbs explode, necessitating more new schools in the outlying county. The time it takes to solicit and screen applicants for the top job means a new superintendent might not arrive until 2024, an election year. If it takes that long, a new superintendent would have only months to prepare if Hillsborough were to seek another tax referendum to increase teacher pay. And the transition would play out in a political environment where public education has become the new front in the partisan culture wars.
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The next year would have been difficult enough had Davis and his team remained. It’s essential that the board recognize that legacy bureaucracies like Hillsborough face unique challenges from an education market that’s evermore nimble. The next superintendent also needs an unvarnished understanding of Hillsborough’s weaknesses and strengths, from its finances to its academics, and an appreciation for the broad diversity of people the school system serves. It’s a tall order, but this institution is invaluable to the region, so there’s no time to waste in finding the right leader.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.