Community Input Sought As Part Of Superintendent Search

Oct 9, 2019

Archive photo of a kindergarten class at Ferry Pass Elementary School in Escambia County.
Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media

The Escambia County School Board is moving ahead with preparations for hiring the district’s first-ever appointed superintendent. Board members are in the process of finalizing the job description. Additionally, the panel is looking for citizen input.

As the district transitions from an elected superintendent to an appointed one, School Board Chair Patty Hightower and her colleagues want to ensure residents have a say in the hiring process. For her, community participation is crucial.

“This is our first opportunity to do this,” Hightower said. “And, it wasn’t an overwhelming vote to go to an appointed superintendent, so I want everybody in the community to feel like they’ve had an opportunity to voice their opinion.”

To that end, the board has announced a series of five community forums across the district over the next few months.

“They are set to last an hour each. And, they (residents) will be given an opportunity to really give us input. These won’t be us standing in front of you talking to you,” explained Hightower of the format.

Instead, the forums will provide participants a chance to sit together and weigh important characteristics and issues as a group.

For example, participants might be asked to consider what they see as the largest challenge to the Escambia County school system.

“And, instead of it being like maybe just one person’s opinion, you’ll be seated at tables with three or four other people and ya’ll will discuss that and then you will report out,” she said. “The search team will record all the conversations and then will bring back to the school board a report on where the trends are.”

The first community forum is set for Oct. 24, 5:30pm at the JE Hall Center. The others will be held on Nov. 14 at Blue Angels Elementary School, Nov. 21 at Pensacola High, Jan. 7 at Beulah Middle and Jan. 9 at Tate High. The start time for each of those sessions is 6 p.m.

Additionally, residents can provide input by completing an online survey, available until December 1 (under the Superintendent tab) on the district’s website: www.escambia.k12.fl.us.

More community input will come from a 20-member citizen advisory committee that’s now being assembled and will meet for the first time in February.

Meantime, board members have spent several weeks working on school board policy and the job description for the new hire.

“We decided Masters’ degree, with a doctorate preferred,” said Hightower about educational qualifications. 

Patty Hightower

“We decided that as a board we were looking for someone with an education-related background. We’re still having conversations about when we say ten years leadership experience, what does that look like? Does that mean only district-level experience, school-level experience?”

Another question is whether the superintendent will be have to live in the district.

“The only thing that I had a question about was the second bullet from the bottom in the minimum requirements, the question of must maintain residence in Escambia County, Florida,” said Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association and Search Committee chair, pointing to the need to clarify the stipulation during their last workshop.  

“Because, maintaining a residence in a county could be anything from has a very small apartment and comes and stays two or three nights a week to owns a full home.”

This particular situation has occurred at least once before with a former school board member. Current board chair Hightower says they decided to follow the language of Volusia County, requiring a primary residence in the district within six months of employment.  

“Now, we know they may have some loose ends to tie up, but the expectation is they will become a registered voter in Escambia County and homestead here,” Hightower proclaimed.

“If this person has school-age children, what is our expectation on the schools they will attend?,” asked board member Bill Slayton, inferring a preference for the children of the district’s top administrator to attend the public schools in their charge and suggesting bad optics if they don’t. 

But, after some discussion, Hightower says it appears this is an issue that’s out of the board’s control.

“In this Florida climate, all parents are given an opportunity, a choice for where they put their students,” she explained. “And, I don’t think we can stipulate where a person puts their students as a requirement.”

To date, board members have agreed on a three-out-five, simple-majority vote in order to fire the appointed superintendent.

However, deliberation over salary continues.

Hightower says their plan is to offer the current superintendent’s salary of about $140,000 annually as a minimum, with no consensus yet on the high end of the pay range.

The goal is to identify and interview finalists by next August, with a selection by Sept. 1.

Discussions will continue at a workshop this Friday morning at 9 a.m. in the district boardroom at the Hall Center, 30 East Texas Dr.