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  1. Opinion

Ruth column: Schools face leadership of a newer sort

Published Jun. 11, 2015

It was tempting at first blush to think newly minted Hillsborough school superintendent Jeff Eakins had decided to go all Dalai Lama on everyone when he named Alberto Vazquez-Matos to become his chief of staff.

After all, in coming into his new job, Vazquez-Matos told the Tampa Bay Times' Marlene Sokol that he intends to bring a belief in the management concept of "servant leadership."

How quaint. How fuzzy-wuzzy. How Ohmmmmm-like of Vazquez-Matos.

And you had to wonder in the highly politicized, hubris-driven atmosphere of the school district if Vazquez-Matos and Eakins were setting themselves up for a paper-pushing mugging. Tampa's knee-capping political institutions rarely embrace personalities who come across as if they were a walking Judy Collins lyric.

You'll recall this is the same Hillsborough School Board that summarily fired Eakins' predecessor, MaryEllen Elia, a nationally respected educator, simply because they felt like it. And when you can get the bum's rush by a school board merely because you did your job, it's a wonder why anyone would have wanted the superintendent's gig in the first place.

It would seem Eakins is the polar opposite of the imperious Elia, who often treated the school board members as if they were her personal cabana attendants.

By contrast, Eakins is an unassuming, policy-wonkish consensus builder. And in the selection of his chief of staff, Vazquez-Matos appears to be cut from the same bolt of bureaucracy.

Vazquez-Matos comes to his new posting after serving as superintendent of schools for the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg. So what exactly is "servant leadership"?

"If I am the superintendent or the chief of staff, it doesn't mean I have more power," Vazquez-Matos told Sokol. "It means I have more responsibility to give of myself to meet the needs of the people I work with and the people I serve. It's not putting myself first."

With that sort of public service mind-set, either this chap will last a week at his new job or wind up governor.

This may be a case of whistling past the classroom, but it is tempting to believe that having two solid, dedicated professional educators running the day-to-day operations of the eighth-largest school district in the country might actually have a calming effect on the often fractious temperaments of the School Board.

For the board to start meddling with Eakins and Vazquez-Matos might come off as a feckless attempt to bully Ward Cleaver and Mister Rogers. The presence of Eakins and Vazquez-Matos could — could — encourage the board members to begin to act like real adults. And isn't having aspirations critical to any educational environment?

Servant leadership.

It does have an idealistic ring to it. And in public schools, where so much attention is paid to the endless rubrics of testing, scores, bloodless teacher evaluations and state mandates, something as holistic as creating a climate of servant leadership might seem to be a daunting task for the 40-year-old Vazquez-Matos.

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Though there are many fine public schools throughout the Hillsborough system, there is a reason why Catholic schools often enjoy a reputation for educational quality. Spared the burden of satisfying elected politicians and meddling state government apparatchiks, Catholic schools focus on the core mission — teaching. How revolutionary.

In his prior job, Vazquez-Matos oversaw 50 schools in five counties. As superintendent for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Vazquez-Matos implemented some lessons from public schools in terms of centralized administrative support, strategic planning and professional development.

As Eakins' chief of staff, perhaps Vazquez-Matos also will bring with him the Catholic school ethos of educational rigor — minus, of course, humorless nuns armed with rulers.