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.”