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.