Malcolm Thomas served three four-year terms as Superintendent of Schools in Escambia County, the district’s last person to be elected to the office.
After his departure, he spoke to WUWF about the end of his long career in education.
In part-two of the conversation, the focus is on the future of the Escambia County School District.
In November, Thomas turned over the reins to Dr. Timothy Smith; the district’s first-ever appointed superintendent.
Thomas was instrumental in triggering the long-sought change in the method of selection for Escambia’s superintendent of schools.
“I did bring it to the board, the school board, and asked them to vote to put it on the ballot and that went to the county commission,” said Thomas. “The rest is sort of history.”
Thomas maintains that how a superintendent is selected is not as important as who is selected. However, he doesn’t necessarily view the job as a political one, where office-holders have to spend time raising money and running a campaign.
“There are a lot of great educators who would be willing to be superintendent but not want to run a campaign and that’s where an appointed superintendent opens the door to some of those professional people who might want to lead a district, but doesn’t necessarily want to run a campaign,” Thomas explained. “But, either system can work, if you get the right people that are going to put the work ethic and effort into the job.”
Asked about the state of education in Escambia County and where he’s leaving it after three terms, Thomas was mostly upbeat.
“Pre-pandemic, I would have told you we’re in a great spot, that we’re leaving everything in a strong place,” Thomas began.
“Financially, our fund balance is sitting around 10%, which is a good place to be. I inherited a 3.5-4% fund balance when I took over in 2008. So, in a pretty good spot there.
Academically, he recounted his quest to improve to a point where there are no D-rated schools in the district. That didn’t play out, although when he left there were just two D-schools remaining.
But, with the coronavirus pandemic forcing half the students participating in Remote or Virtual learning, Thomas is concerned about data showing a lot of regression this year.
That’s not the system’s fault, not even the student’s fault; it’s just a factor of what our country has been dealing with, with the pandemic,” he stated. “I’m worried that, academically, it’s going to take us some time for us to recover from what’s happening this year, with students who are not receiving, not participating at the same level that they would have if they were in a face-to-face classroom.”
Before handing off to his replacement, Dr. Timothy Smith, Thomas had time to work with him during a transition period. He believes Smith brings a lot of positives to the office.
“I think he’s going to do fine,” Thomas declared, noting that Smith is very qualified for the job as a long-time educator who served as an administrator in a very district that has faced some of the same issues that Escambia will face.
“He, obviously, is going to be his own person, as he should be. He’ll bring new ideas and a fresh outlook and that’s never bad. On the other hand, we’ve left him a pretty good hand to play,” he said.
However, in this changing world, Thomas says you never know what to expect. For whatever comes up, Thomas plans to make himself available to assist Smith in any way he can from the outside.
“But, he’s the superintendent; I understand that and we’re going to support him. I’m going to cheer him on from the sideline,” he said of his desired to see his successor build on what he started and move the district to the next level.
“Let’s go become an A school district, what I couldn’t get done, I hope he’s able to do in the next year or two.”
As for the biggest challenges, facing the District and its new top administrator, Thomas reiterated his immediate concerns about the affect of the pandemic on academic progress.
“I think all the rules are going to be rewritten on this, once we really can assess our students after all is said and done,” he said.
Additionally, in this time of Covid-19, Thomas expects the budget to be a big issue, particularly because the state is so dependent on tourism and sales tax revenue.
“So, when people aren’t spending and aren’t coming and staying in hotels and going to our theme parks, that’s a large part of the revenue that funds education and other services in Florida,” Thomas explained.
“It’s only logical that there is going to be a shortfall with revenue, so he’ll have to – with his team – navigate those waters; we’ve been there before. But, he’s going to have to be strategic and make sure that what we’re spending money on is absolutely necessary and essential. I think he has the skills and will be able to do that.”
One thing that Smith will have, that Thomas didn’t, is the benefit of the new Escambia Children’s Trust, which establishes an independent taxing district to fund a wide range of services and programs aimed at improving the lives of children and families in the county. Thomas sees it as a step in the right direction, but warns against overplaying what it can accomplish.
“Even though it’s going to generate a stable funding source, the amount of money, $8 million - $9 million dollars a year, it really is not a lot of money when you look at the volume of students that you’re going to have to impact,” he cautioned.
“So, I think it will be incumbent upon that group to be very focused, set those goals that they want to accomplish, stay with that and not try to spread themselves too thin.”
Finally, Thomas shares his hope for the future of the Escambia County School District.
“I want every student to be able to realize their dream,” he proclaimed. “I want every student to go to school and one day grow up and become a Superintendent if they want to. That’s what happened to me. Whatever those students want to dream, that’s what I want to see them be able to accomplish.”
Further, the outgoing superintendent says he wants the district to be in a position to give students the tools they need to get where they want to go.