Joe Henderson: Eakins will leave school district in better shape than the one he inherited

Jeff Eakins was what Hillsborough schools needed. He was the right person at the right time for a job that can eat you alive.
Hillsborough County Public Schools’ Superintendent Jeff Eakins gestures as he speaks during a town hall meeting Tuesday, in September 2018. Eakins spoke about the Strengthen Our Schools Hillsborough School Referendum. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times (2018)]
Hillsborough County Public Schools’ Superintendent Jeff Eakins gestures as he speaks during a town hall meeting Tuesday, in September 2018. Eakins spoke about the Strengthen Our Schools Hillsborough School Referendum. [CHRIS URSO | Times (2018)]
Published June 13

With the passage of time, it’s easy to forget how stormy it was around here when the Hillsborough County School Board fired Superintendent MaryEllen Elia in January 2015.

The deep division between those who demanded Elia stay versus those thrilled to see her go was palpable. There were vows of retaliation against board members who voted to terminate her contract. Business and political leaders were furious.

And no one knew the district was about to face a major financial problem compounded by Tallahassee lawmakers intent on destroying — uh, I mean reconfiguring — public education.

Jeff Eakins stepped into that breach, succeeding Elia to absolutely no fanfare. I’m sure he was fine with that. Eakins is low-key, methodical, soothing, and utterly decent. He is not a self-promoter. He didn’t even try to be the rock star that Elia often seemed to believe she was.

In other words, Eakins was what Hillsborough schools needed. He was the right person at the right time for a job that can eat you alive. He announced Monday he will retire as superintendent on June 30, 2020, and no one has earned a rest more.

“Hillsborough County students have been well-served by Superintendent Jeff Eakins, and I wish he was not leaving,” U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor said in a statement.

He said he needed to be more available to his family in Ohio. It has been my experience that when someone says it’s all about the family, what they often mean is that they’re either being forced out or have reached the breaking point.

Well, he wasn’t being forced out, despite the snarky comment by board member and chief Eakins critic Lynn Gray that she is disappointed they won’t get to discuss a new contract with him. It must really burn to lose that chance to administer a public flogging.

But as far as deciding enough is enough, Eakins’ heartfelt retirement letter to the board left bread crumbs that lead in that direction.

“It is often said that being a superintendent is a very challenging job. I personally have witnessed, however, that being a superintendent’s spouse is even more challenging,” he said, referring to his wife, Peggy.

“As a superintendent, there are days when you know that your spouse is suffering for you, and unfortunately, there is little that can be done to ease that feeling. Despite these challenges, Peggy is incredibly supportive. She is a woman of faith and a true prayer warrior.”

Not long after Eakins took over, everyone learned that the ballyhooed Gates mentoring program was drastically bleeding the district’s reserve funds and endangering its bond rating. About the same time, the teachers union was fighting hard for raises, and Tallahassee lawmakers were shifting public school money to charters and vouchers.

The start of each school year also brought reports of sweltering classrooms as aging air conditioning systems collapsed and needed expensive repairs or replacements.

It was a catastrophe in the making.

With no other options, Eakins became the point person in the district’s push for a sales tax referendum to bring in desperately needed cash. At the time, I thought it was a fool’s errand. Convincing citizens to tax themselves, no matter the cause, is no easy task.

But Eakins met with any group or person that would listen. He stepped outside himself and became a salesman. Over many months leading to last November’s election, he laid out the needs and benefits. And it passed.

Giving a year’s notice before leaving is typical of the way Eakins operates. It gives the board time to conduct an unhurried search, and there will be no shortage of candidates from which to choose. There will be much discussion about traits the new person must have to deal with the challenges they will face.

Know this, though. The next superintendent will inherit a district in far better shape than the one Eakins inherited. As legacies go, that’s a good one.

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