Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday February 19th 2019

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Wanted: Appointed Superintendent

By Duwayne Escobedo

Patty Hightower admitted it might be difficult for the Escambia County School Board to appoint its first superintendent in 2020 because of the school system’s reputation for performing poorly.

The Escambia County School Board chairwoman pointed out in 1998 on Florida’s first standardized test, Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), only two schools in the state earned an “F.” They were both located in Escambia County. This year, the district did not have any “F” schools and earned an overall “B” grade.

“What aren’t we doing?” asked Hightower. “These kids are our kids. Why can’t we meet their needs? We’ve tried a lot of things, but we still struggle.”

When asked what it would take to attract a top-notch superintendent to the school system, Hightower responded, “I’ve been trying to figure that out. Maybe they want to come to Escambia County because they see the challenge.”

Hightower was making her first public presentation about the process of hiring an appointed superintendent Thursday, Jan. 31, as part of a Q&A sponsored by the Pensacola Young Professionals at the Pensacola News Journal office building. About two dozen locals came to listen to Hightower, a four-term school board member.

She urged them and the rest of the community, especially parents of school-aged children, teachers and principals, to envision what they want in an appointed superintendent.

Voters passed the measure to move away from an elected superintendent by less than 1 percent in November. Across the country, 99.5 percent of school districts have an appointed superintendent. Only Florida, Alabama and Mississippi cling to holding an election.

Hightower’s Wish List
“We need a person who can tell us where they can take us,” she said. “They need to tell us, ‘This is what I can do to change (the school district’s) direction.’ We need a leader who can move the trajectory, so we don’t have that many schools in the lower 300 (in the state).”

She did credit current three-term Superintendent Malcolm Thomas for increasing the graduation rate from 56 percent in 2008 to 80 percent today and creating workforce academies at middle schools and high schools, among other gains.

Kim Krupa, a local resident and Achieve Escambia director, said the community needed to focus more on positive things happening in local schools and spread the word about them.

“I think we need to hire someone who loves and believes in public schools,” Krupa said. “We have an image problem. But people don’t know about all the positive things we’re doing.”

Twenty-nine of the 67 counties in Florida appoint a superintendent. Escambia passed the measure for the first time in six tries dating back 51 years. Additionally, Marion and Martin counties also voted this past election to appoint their school superintendents. It was the fourth time Marion voters considered the issue and the fifth time since 1986 that Martin voters cast ballots.

Hightower said that she has been worrying about the appointment process. She held up a white binder showing all the independent research she has done.

The process usually takes up to six months to complete, but Hightower reported that Thomas said he would stay beyond his term that ends Nov. 16, 2020, if the board needs him to help ensure a smooth transition.

She said she planned to set aside an hour at each meeting so the five-member board can discuss the hiring. Although the board did listen to a presentation by the Florida School Board Association, it has yet to address the process together. The first chance for that will be at its Monday, Feb. 18 workshop, Hightower said.

“I’m glad the public is entrusting us to do this,” Hightower said. “We are taking it seriously. We have been in charge of hiring before but not at this magnitude.”

Hightower said the process would begin with a six-week national search for an education leader. The board would likely hire an advisory committee to screen the applicants and make recommendations to the board.

Once the selection process concludes, the school board must negotiate the salary with its choice to oversee the district’s 51 schools, 40,000 students, 7,000 teachers, staff members and more than $650 million budget. Hightower said the state would allow Escambia up to $225,000 to fund a competitive salary.

As part of the hour-long PYP event, Hightower shared a slide that compared salaries of appointed superintendents in Florida county school districts similar in size to Escambia.

Those school systems all paid salaries more than the $141,806 earned annually by Superintendent Thomas.

The school districts, number of students and salaries were:

•Collier, 46,000 students, $236,677
•Lake, 42,000 students, $195,000
•Manatee, 48,000 students, $193,718
•St. Johns, 39,000 students, $165,000

“I was thinking it was going to be worse,” said Hightower, who served as the Florida School Board Association board president from 2015-2017.

Butch Hansen, a Pensacola resident, said he had no issue with paying a higher salary to an appointed superintendent.

“You get what you pay for,” Hansen said.

Hightower said she wishes she could fast forward to the end of the selection process for a new superintendent. Although she wouldn’t name names, she said she had local people in mind and people who head other school districts in Florida that she would like to appoint.

“The next superintendent must continue our movement forward,” she said. “We can’t go backward.”