Searching out a savior for Escambia schools

by Jeremy Morrison, Inweekly

As the Escambia County School District searches for its next superintendent, transitioning from an elected to an appointed position, there’s a few qualities on the wish list. District leaders are looking for someone with “high integrity,” someone who “has great drive and takes on challenges,” someone who will be “accountable,” a “good communicator” with “deep listening skills” who is also a “visionary” that is “committed to diversity.”

It’s a tall order.

“We’re very aware of how important this decision is,” said Patty Hightower, chairman of Escambia’s school board, during a virtual town hall Monday night hosted by CivicCon.

For the past 12 years, the district has been led by Superintendent Malcolm Thomas. Last year, voters decided to switch to an appointed superintendent, a change that will take place as Thomas’s term wraps up in the fall.

Hightower noted the school district’s improvements under Thomas, nodding towards his “hard shoes to fill.”

“Where he’s moved us from good to better,” she said, “we’re looking for someone who’s going to move us from better to best.”

That statement seemed to dance around an awkward reality: for decades, Escambia has languished in the bottom third of school districts across Florida. Janet Pilcher, managing director of Huron Consulting Group and senior executive at Studer Education, who moderated the virtual forum phrased this another way: “There’s great opportunities through challenges in Escambia County.”

Even with such challenges, the search for a superintendent is aiming high in hopes of snagging a candidate who is, in the words of CivicCon Executive Director Terry Horne, “the kind of person that can make a difference here.”

“How attractive do you think this position is for someone who’s already a top-ranking superintendent?” Horned wondered. “To make them want to jump ship and come to Escambia County?”

Pilcher said she felt the position — based in a mid-size, coastal district and with a salary range between $145,000 and $175,000— was “pretty attractive,” but also noted the “competitive landscape” of the mission.

“I hope we open our minds to find the best person,” she said, maintaining a high aim. “I want us to be the best in Florida, but I’d like to see us be the best in the country.”

Several times during Monday’s town hall, the “diversity” within the Escambia school district was referenced. The district spans both urban areas, as well as more rural stretches. It serves students from varying backgrounds, with varying needs.

Hightower said that any candidate looking to fill the position would need to be able to demonstrate a track record of improvements within a struggling system. Officials want to know the candidate is able to successfully work with less-advantaged or lower performing students in an effort to “close the achievement gap.”

“I want to see the evidence, where they’ve moved students,” Hightower said.

Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Board Association, which is assisting Escambia in its search, agreed. She stressed the importance for the district to take a deep dive into the data of a candidate’s career.

“Show us the data, tell us how you did it and were you able to replicate it,” she said. “We look at the data. You have to look at data, there’s no avoiding it if you’re looking for proven success.”

As it looks toward public meetings in August designed to acquaint candidates being considered for the position with the community, as well as an eventual decision on the matter slated for September, the Escambia school district currently has 13 applicants vying for the superintendent position.

Because of Florida’s Sunshine Law, which throws a candidate into public records territory the moment they apply for the position, Messina said that the district should expect the bulk of candidates to apply at the last minute. But she said she’s reached out to a number of people who have expressed interest in the job and is optimistic about the final field of candidates.

“I think they’re going to have a hard time choosing,” Messina said.

Whoever the district selects, Hightower tempered immediate expectations. After all, as Horne noted at the onset of the forum, “this superintendent role is a big job.”

“Give them some time,” Hightower said. “Don’t expect them to change the world tomorrow.”


2 thoughts on “Searching out a savior for Escambia schools

  1. CJ,
    This seems to contradict your opinion on other subjects where only Pensacola residents should have a say on Pensacola matters. Studer lives in Pensacola. Under your logic, why should he get involved in referendums for school district’s outside of his community?

  2. The real mystery is why Quint Studer – who in 2018 formed a very closely-held political committee that fought so hard and spent so much money to have the power to pick the Superintendent of Schools in Escambia County transferred from all county voters to five school board members each only elected by one-fifth of the voters – has not openly come out in support of doing the same in Santa Rosa County, or Okaloosa County. Is he a hypocrite? Is there another motive?

    Studer’s political committee (Yes for Escambia Schools, P.C.) chaired by D.C. Reeves who works for him was mostly self-funded but with a few dollars kicked in by Michelle Salzman (whose political campaign is supported by Studer) and her husband Philip Salzman (who is supporting the new Escambia Children’s Trust effort to use even more public tax dollars to fund Escambia County’s bloated non-profit “industry”).

    It now seems like an obvious conflict of interest to read here that “Studer Education” is involved in the process of selecting a new Superintendent.

    In his own words, Studer is not focused on just the City of Pensacola or Escambia County alone, “When I say Pensacola, I mean the Pensacola metro area.” I believe him. The “metro area” includes all of Escambia County and all of Santa Rosa County too.

    In Escambia County, the problem is the School Board that sets school district policy and priorities. The Superintendent executes their policies and priorities. You almost feel sorry for Superintendent Malcolm Thomas having to work for this School Board. This seems a classic case of shifting the blame away where where it belongs (the School Board) to someone else (Superintendent Malcolm Thomas).

    The campaign materials sent out by Studer in 2018, and his viewpoints on the issue printed by the very supportive News Journal, never once explained why an elected Superintendent works so well in Santa Rosa County and Okaloosa County but will not work in Escambia County. I wish I had a dollar for every person who told me that they are going to move to Santa Rosa County so their kids can go to middle school and high school there while they keep their jobs in Escambia County.

    I think we all know how this is really going to turn out. In a few years time, when nothing much has changed, because no one has honestly identified what is broken that needs to be fixed, and with Santa Rosa County continuing to charge ahead while Escambia County politicians flounder in self-pity, the Escambia County School Board will sacrifice the new Superintendent as its political scapegoat.

    Anybody crazy enough to accept the position of Escambia County Superintendent of Schools should first buy plenty of “scapegoat insurance” before showing up to work.

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