1. Opinion

Editorial: Challenges await next Hillsborough superintendent

CHRIS URSO | Times (2018) Hillsborough County Public Schools superintendent Jeff Eakins announced this week he will retire next year.
Published Jun. 11

Jeff Eakins' retirement as superintendent leaves the Hillsborough County School Board with a major decision that will help shape the quality of life throughout Tampa Bay. Though Eakins calmed the waters during a turbulent time and put the district on sounder financial footing, Hillsborough still faces enormous challenges with its inner-city schools and with competing demands in the fast-growing suburbs that will strain the budget for decades. Fortunately, the School Board has the time to conduct a thoughtful, national search to find the right fit for the nation's eighth-largest school system.

Eakins, in a letter Monday to the School Board, announced he would retire when his contract expires at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, about a year from now. He was a top deputy when the board fired then-superintendent MaryEllen Elia in January 2015 following a series of controversies, and he quickly sought to repair the working relationship with School Board members and the district's image the community. Eakins cut spending to address a budget shortfall, and his signature achievement is his work with the teacher's union and local advocates to pass a half-cent sales tax last year for school construction and repairs.

Eakins' successor will have more resources to address immediate school maintenance needs, but the district is still struggling with low-performing schools in the county's poorest communities. Several programs Eakins initiated never hit their mark. The district is also struggling with persistent teacher vacancies, lagging reading scores and complaints by teachers of student disciplinary problems in the classroom. During Eakins' tenure, the number of "F" schools in the district has dropped, and graduation rates have risen. But his successor faces a big challenge in fairly distributing limited resources to meet different needs throughout a wildly diverse county.

Eakins' timing of his retirement announcement gives the School Board and the community a decent runway to reach a consensus on framing the priorities and finding the right person with the right skills to address them. How should those priorities be ranked? What talents should the next superintendent possess? Where is the district succeeding, and falling short, in meeting the area's workforce needs? Eakins was keenly aware that the district - as the county's major employer - had a responsibility to contribute to the region's competitiveness and quality of life. He was connected to industry and local leaders, and he recognized the role the private sector could play in advancing the public school system.

The next superintendent must be creative in controlling costs, working with other local leaders and private developers to locate new schools in community settings. There also will be a micromanaging Legislature and a fervent charter school supporter as state education commissioner to please. The district needs to consolidate some under-used facilities and explore new ways of involving parents and students at low-performing campuses. It also needs to build on the private sector support that helped deliver the local tax for school capital needs last year. This will take a leader with vision, energy, tolerance and communication skills, and one committed to spend the time necessary here to yield results.

Eakins' focus on students, and his essential decency, set the tone for what will be remembered as a vital period of stabilizing the school district. The School Board should take its time to find the best candidate to build on that record and address the district's significant financial and academic challenges.


  1. Activist Greta Thunberg, foreground, participates in a climate protest, in central Stockholm Sweden. PONTUS LUNDAHL  |  AP
    Here’s some interesting commentary from the opposite poles of the political spectrum.
  2. Connie Schultz File photo
    It started out with a question over a wonderful birthday dinner.
  3. Yesterday• Letters to the Editor
    With his machine gun, a paratrooper of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Brigade advances near Hue at the height of the Vietnam War.
    Here’s what readers had to say in Sunday’s paper.
  4. editorial cartoon from times wires Bill Day -- Florida
  5. Target and some other big retailers plan to hire more seasonal workers than last year.
    Tampa Bay businesses could struggle to find enough qualified workers during the busy holiday shopping season.
  6. Signs posted at St. Petersburg's North Shore Park in September 2016 warned people to stay out of the water due to contamination from sewage released by the city's sewer system after it was overwhelmed by Hurricane Hermine. Times staff
    Raise environmental fines for local governments and companies, but also help communities rebuild their infrastructure.
  7. An architect's rendering shows part of a planned research center and hospital on N McKinley Drive in Tampa for Moffitt Cancer Center. During the 2020 legislative session in Tallahassee, the center will seek an increased share of Florida's cigarette tax to finance the McKinley Drive project and other improvements. Moffitt officials said Thursday that the increase would finance $205 million, to be paired with $332 million they have already allocated for the project. Moffitt Cancer Center
    The cancer center is a global leader and a regional economic driver. It needs more space to accommodate more patients, researchers and technology.
  8. Norwegian Airlines has announced it plans to launch twice weekly service between Tampa and London's Gatwick Airport. Photo courtesy Norwegian Airlines
    More international flights to and from Tampa mean more tourism and more commerce for the region. That’s good.
  9. Paula Dockery of Lakeland served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years. Paula Dockery
    Florida, Florida State and South Florida reach new heights in the newest rankings.
  10. A patron exhales vapor from an e-cigarette at a store in New York. AP
    Six people have now died due to illnesses linked to vaping, writes State Rep. Jackie Toledo.