CivicCon: Escambia wants new superintendent to move school district ‘from better to best’

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Pensacola News Journal | Kevin Robinson | June 16, 2020

CivicCon is hosting a special town hall tonight on the selection of a new Escambia County school superintendent. Pensacola News Journal

As the Escambia County School District board looks to hire a new superintendent this year, one of their top priorities will be finding someone who will keep building on the district’s successes.

Board Chair Patty Hightower, in a CivicCon virtual town hall Monday night, said the district’s mission is to create an environment where all students can achieve their highest potential.

“(Malcolm) Thomas has been in office for 12 years, and he’s moved us a good distance along the way,” Hightower said. “So what we’re looking for in our next superintendent is someone who — where (Thomas) has moved us from good to better — we want someone to will move us from better to best.”

Thomas is set to retire in November, and for the first time in modern history, Escambia County will hire the incoming superintendent rather than appoint them. The district hired the Florida School Board Association to help manage the search.

► Meet the six applicants vying to be Escambia County’s new school superintendent

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At CivicCon, Hightower and Andrea Messina, executive director of the FSBA, provided a progress report on how the candidate search is going and some perspective on what will make the new superintendent successful.

The person who takes the position will be responsible for approximately 40,000 students, 5,000 employees and a $650 million budget. The job comes with a three-year contract and an annual salary of $145,000 to $175,000.

Messina, who has assisted numerous school districts across the state hire superintendents, said it shouldn’t be a problem for the district to attract good, qualified candidates.

“Escambia is in a very good place,” Messina said. “You don’t have a financial emergency. You don’t have academic emergencies. You don’t have a bunch of scandals with employees. In some districts, when we’re looking for superintendents, those things do exist, and so they’re looking specifically for a financial leader, or a curriculum leader. But here we’ve got a solid, well-rounded foundation.”

Messina said people tend to underestimate what a demanding and complex role superintendent is.

“Florida school districts are the largest or second largest employer in every single county across the state,” she said. “We run the largest restaurant chain with our food service organizations. We run the largest transportation system with our buses. We run inventory control and textbook management systems. We run repair systems with carpenters and plumbers and electricians in our schools. We run custodial service businesses, we run landscaping businesses, and I haven’t even begun to talk about actual education.”

Messina said there would be no superintendent candidate who would excel at managing every single aspect of the district. She said the superintendents who prove most successful are the ones who can build solids teams who balance their shortcomings, who work respectfully and productively with others, and who ultimately find ways to achieve.

Across numerous surveys by the school district and by CivicCon, citizens and educators have stressed they want a superintendent who is a problem solver, a good communicator, an experienced leader and educator, and someone who recognizes and embraces the diversity of our community.

Ideal candidate: Tips for next superintendent: Be honest. Be courageous. Be critical. Be in it for the kids.

Hightower said part of the school board’s role would be doing the due diligence to ensure they found that person. She said along with doing interviews and reviewing resumes, the district would be talking with peers, subordinates, business leaders, minority group associations and other swaths of applicants’ communities to hear about their strengths and weaknesses.

“You can’t just take what pieces of paper say, you have to do your due diligence and check on the other things that are there between the lines,” Hightower said.

She added that personally, she expects candidates to do their own homework before they show up.

“A person that I’m going to look in a positive way will have looked at our data for the last several years, and will be able to come in to an interview and say, ‘These are things I see as weaknesses or challenges in this district, and these are some things I have done in the past that have helped (improve these types of situations).'” 

Currently, the district has 13 applicants. Hightower said the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t had too much of an impact on the search process. Messina said based on her experience in other districts, she was confident that number would increase significantly by the time the job posting closes.

For instance, she said in Sarasota County, the number of applicants increased from 11 to 34 in the final week.

The applicants will be screened down to a handful of semi-finalists by a 26-member citizen advisory committee.

Those semi-finalists will be invited to Escambia County in late August for a round of public interviews, a tour of the district, one-on-one meetings with school board members and an open-to-the public meet and greet. The board plans to make its final selection Sept. 1.

The incoming superintendent would report in October to work through a transitional period with Malcolm Thomas, then fully take the reigns Nov. 17.

Close look at the numbers: Escambia County graduation rate nears 85%, while Santa Rosa inches toward 90%

Hightower said she hopes the public will stay engaged throughout the process, support the new superintendent regardless of whether the candidate was their preferred candidate and understand that the new superintendent wouldn’t be able to solve all their problems overnight.

But addressing her own personal benchmarks for success, she said after 90 days, the new superintendent should have identified the district’s challenges and developed a game plan to address them. At one year, they should have a fully developed strategic plan to meet Florida’s new educational standards, the Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking

And by the end of the contract, Hightower said her goal is for the district to be “where parents want to send students, where students want to learn, where teachers want to teach and where employees want to work … In three years, we’ll be an ‘A’ district.”

The full discussion is available online at pnj.com/civiccon. The CivicCon page also includes a panel discussion on what makes a good superintendent by leaders of successful school districts across the country.

CivicCon is a partnership between the News Journal and the Studer Community Institute to make Pensacola a better place to live, grown, work and invest through smart planning and civic conversations.