Addison Davis’ surprise resignation has opened what’s likely to be a predictable process in searching for a new Hillsborough schools superintendent. If history is any guide, the school board will launch a national search, and internal and outside candidates alike will stress the traditional things, from their administrative chops and budgeting experience to their solutions for poorly performing schools.
But what about the X factor? Many can manage people and institutions. But great leaders have qualities that set them apart — skills that transcend jobs and industries and rise to the times. In Hillsborough alone, several names come to mind when thinking about the ideal qualities in Davis’ replacement.
We are not nominating these people mentioned below for the superintendent’s job; several would be the wrong fit and some likely wouldn’t take it, anyway. Our intent here is to highlight how the strengths of these individuals would be enormously helpful to Hillsborough as the school system faces an uncertain budget picture, an expanded school choice market and the demand for new campuses in the fast-growing suburbs.
Four qualities in particular are direly needed.
Budget hawk. The district needs to get its financial house in order if it hopes to survive and flourish. That requires an attention to the bottom line that then-Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio showed during the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009. Over three years, Iorio cut hundreds of positions to stabilize the budget, reducing the city’s workforce by 10% while still preserving core services. She also continued to invest strategically in infrastructure and downtown, realizing the Riverwalk and other amenities would fuel Tampa’s rebound and the city center’s now-explosive growth. A former Hillsborough County commissioner and local elections supervisor, Iorio had a straightforward approach to solving problems: Size it up, suck it up and move on. That needs to be the mentality of the next superintendent as he or she grapples with too many campuses that taxpayers cannot afford and the ever-growing competition for tax money from state-sanctioned charter schools.
Civic booster. The district needs to build a deeper bench of civic support to avoid the danger of becoming a political island. Creating more civic buy-in is the first step toward pouring much-needed, new resources toward the most struggling schools. Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister has shown how looking outside his own work bubble — in his case law enforcement — can pay dividends. Case in point: Early on, he understood the impacts a failing school system can have on public safety. Chronister is vice chairperson of a citizens’ board that oversees $130 million in spending annually from Hillsborough’s school maintenance tax, and with his wife, Nikki DeBartolo, has been widely involved in supporting the Hillsborough schools; the DeBartolo Family Foundation sponsors school-adoption programs and helps teachers with out-of-pocket expenses. The family also co-founded a charter high school that is consistently A-rated by the state. Chronister has effectively leveraged his influence as sheriff to help him address an issue that doesn’t necessarily fall within a sheriff’s traditional purview. Consider the impact if a high-profile figure brought that same star power to bear on a grander scale as school superintendent.
Open communicator. The school board’s closure in May of the largely vacant and mostly Black Just Elementary School opened old racial tensions in a county with a segregated past. Thomas Scott would have handled it differently. This Georgia native broke into Hillsborough politics in 1996, winning an uphill County Commission race by appealing across racial lines in a heavily Black district. For decades, Scott, a bishop and senior pastor of the 34th Street Church of God, has built bridges across the community through his public service and church ministries. He sees firsthand how housing patterns and urban gentrification are changing educational opportunities for Black children. A realist, Scott is attuned enough to understand that history and perceptions matter. A reputation as an honest broker is what many Black families are searching for in a new superintendent as more underused schools in Tampa’s older neighborhoods face the prospect of closure.
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Tinkerer’s touch. Hillsborough has too many C- and D-rated schools. But it also has some of the best in Florida, and overall, earns a B grade from the state. The trick to making the district’s 217 schools more appealing is understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each. That’s where Joe Lopano has excelled in running Tampa International Airport. Lopano didn’t build the airport; its reputation as a world-class facility was established long before he arrived as chief executive in 2011. But Lopano has the ability to reimagine. He quickly surmised what worked here (the terminal) and what didn’t (parking), and set about fixing TIA’s weak points without blowing it up. Lopano made a gateway already famed for its customer experience more beloved, while expanding long-haul flights, making it easier and cheaper to connect with the world. The next superintendent needs to be as creative and nuanced in battling atrophy so the weakest links don’t define the system.
Again, these are not endorsements for superintendent, but reflections on what some successful Tampa leaders brought to their jobs. The budget, vouchers, changing demographics and the culture wars will present headaches on many fronts. That’s why a fresh perspective of what it takes to run America’s seventh-largest school system will benefit the next superintendent and all of Tampa Bay.
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.