After five previous defeats, a narrow majority of voters in Escambia County finally approved a 2018 referendum to switch from an elected school superintendent to an appointed one.
The Escambia County School District is now laying the groundwork for hiring the district’s top administrator by next fall.
To help with the process, board members have hired a search team from the Florida School Boards Association; the estimated cost is $25,000.
At a board workshop in May, the search team, headed by the organization’s executive director Andrea Messina, checked off their first task of holding a Superintendent Search pre-search interview with the district’s current leadership.
“What we’d like to do is really get a feel for the community and this really helps to establish sort of a common baseline of understanding for some of these important elements,” said Messina. “It allows us to hear some of the successes that your district has had. It allows you all a chance to weigh in. It also gives us an idea of the sorts of challenges that your district has that may be unique to your district.
“I’m just gonna [sic] hit some of the highlights,” said outgoing Superintendent Malcolm Thomas, as he prepared to reel off a stream of consciousness about the district’s successes under his leadership.
“I’ll start off with the school district in 2008 received a district grade of B. That was an improvement for us from the “C” we had the year prior,” Thomas said, adding that the school district has never received a district grade lower than a “C.”
With 2019 calculations pending, the current district grade is a “B” and there are no “F” schools.
“Our graduation rate has increased from about 55 % in 2008 to almost 81 % in 2018. Ten consecutive years, an increase in graduate rate every year. There’s not been a decline in any year over the last decade, and if you look at any kind of data, that’s pretty phenomenal.”
Looking out three to five years, Thomas wants to become an “A” district. He also discussed the need to start thinking about re-implementing the half-cent Local Option Sales Tax, the prospect of performance pay for all district personnel, implementing new school safety legislation, and finding a way to recruit and fill teaching positions.
Board members chimed in on various topics. District 3 board member Laura Edler applauded the new early warning system for at risk students, but wanted the record to reflect that more is needed to address the district’s problems with school discipline, including disparities in implementation.
“It seems that African Americans and poor children are being disciplined more than other populations,” Edler noted. “I believe that when we look at our strengths, we must also focus on our weaknesses.”
Residents, staff, and prospective superintendent candidates who want to know more about where the district stands — and the hiring process — can find listen to the entire pre-search interview by going to the Superintendent Search page on the district’s website.
Escambia County School Board Chair Patty Hightower says there’s also online access to the search committee’s plan detailing all the things that have to be done in the next year or so.
“They have created a timeline for us, with the ultimate goal of having a person under contract by September of 2020,” said Hightower, noting that the goal is to have hired a replacement for Superintendent Thomas before he leaves office in November 2020, so they there’s a little time for them to work together. “He can give him some insights in some struggles he continues to see, and how to work forward with that, meet his staff, and those things that we need to have happen.”
With the hiring process just getting underway, there are several meetings to hold and tasks to accomplish. Hightower, a long-time proponent of an appointed superintendent, says their next agenda workshop on July 11 will focus on the required changes in school board policy.
“We have to look at our policy, because we’ve never had an appointed superintendent,” Hightower said. She explained that one area they will have to discuss is how the hired person is evaluated, noting that voters used to perform that function every four years.
But, in order to do an evaluation, Hightower says the board has to know what the district’s strategic plan is, “Because in order for us to know what this person needs to do, we need to know what we see in the future of our school district from a strategic plan standpoint.”
On the horizon in August is a discussion of job description, qualifications and pay for the position. The meeting also will cover how the public will be included in the process.
There are plans to establish a Citizens Advisory Committee. Additionally, there will be an online community survey, community forums, and internal focus groups for district staff.
The schedule calls for the job to be advertised and the application period to begin on April 1, 2020. Finalists will be brought in for interviews in August of next year. Hightower says she and her colleagues on the school board have to make many big decisions by then.
“We’re looking for somebody who has leadership experience,” but she continued, “We’re gonna [sic] have to discuss what leadership experience means and where that leadership experience needs to have come from.”
Determining a salary range for the position and educating the public about what amount is appropriate also will be major tasks.
That’s because the person the board is looking for has a big organization to run from managing 5,000 employees and 40,000 students, plus their parents, and also running a bus system, ensuring schools are cleaned and students are fed.
“I think a lot of times the public is not truly aware of the fact that education is big business and there are a lot of pieces to it, not just the classroom,” Hightower said.
She was among three members of the Escambia School Board who recently attended the Florida School Boards Association meeting in Tampa. This was an opportunity for them to network with colleagues from other districts (Martin and Marion) who are also making the transition from an elected to an appointed superintendent, and others (Monroe) who've recently made the switch.
Hightower said she was able to pick up some very valuable information to apply to their search.
“One of the things that one of the board members said is be sure they’re not an ivory tower kind of person; they’re not somebody who sits in their office and is that way,” she shared. “The main thing they said is ‘don’t sell yourself short; don’t settle.’”
That means being willing to go beyond the November 2020 hiring date and continuing the search until they get someone they believe can build on the district’s recent achievements.
Because the vote to switch was so close, approved by less than one percent, Hightower wants to be sure to get it right.