TAMPA — The school district of Hillsborough County is the giant among local governments, with a $3 billion budget, the biggest single share of the county property tax revenues, more workers at 30,000 than any employer in the county, and 200,000-plus students to educate.
The district’s new leader, Superintendent Jeff Eakins, assembled a mix of newcomers and veterans to help him run the operation, each aligned to address school district priorities or improve customer service, communication or clarity, he said.
The moves also saved the district the equivalent of a senior salary: The 10 people drawing the highest six-figure paychecks are collectively receiving $81,000 less than before under former Superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
“Ultimately, saving money for the district can better provide customer service,” Eakins said. “Yes, we saved money, but we also brought to light very critical issues we’re going to focus on. ”
Those issues include a renewed focus on boosting graduation rates and working to fix racial disparities in student discipline and academics.
Most of the savings comes from the difference between the salaries of Eakins and Elia. As of July 1, when his contract kicks in, Eakins will earn $225,000 annually. That’s a $71,000-per-year raise, but still tens of thousands less than Elia’s salary of $288,900.
Elia, superintendent for 10 years, was fired by a divided school board in January. The move came with a $1.1 million payout to the former superintendent, who last month was named New York state education commissioner.
Elia’s last day of work was in early March but she is still considered the superintendent through June 30.
Here are the top 10 leaders as measured by salary, with their titles and pay effective as of the start of the fiscal year July 1.
♦ Jeff Eakins, superintendent: $225,000
Eakins, 50, joined the school district in 1989 as a teacher at Wimauma Elementary School. He rose through the ranks, and was named acting superintendent in February. At the time, he was serving as one of Elia’s two deputy superintendents. He has led the district since Elia left in March.
The superintendent, hired and evaluated by the seven-member school board, is in charge of running the school district, the nation’s eighth-largest.
♦ Connie Milito, chief governmental relations officer: $151,976
As the district’s top lobbyist, Milito, 56, works to make Hillsborough’s priorities known among state lawmakers. She keeps the school board abreast of legislative issues that affect its schools. Employed by the school district since 1982, Milito has worked under three superintendents and brings valuable institutional knowledge. She previously reported to a deputy superintendent, but now will report directly to Eakins.
“I wanted to make sure she was one of my closest advisers,” Eakins said.
♦ Wynne Tye, assistant superintendent for instructional support: $151,976
Tye, 57, joined the district in 1981 and oversees exceptional student education, nontraditional programs and professional development, as well as the guidance and social work departments.
♦ Larry Sykes, chief of schools: $150,242
Chief of schools is a new position that Eakins created to oversee the area superintendents who supervise clusters of schools in specific geographic areas.
Sykes, 54, joined the district in 1987. He was a teacher, administrator and area superintendent before becoming assistant superintendent of academic services and federal programs in 2013.
“He understands how to run a successful school,” Eakins said.
Eakins’ goal was to cut out a step in the process of addressing parent and school issues. Sykes, who previously reported to a deputy superintendent, will now report directly to Eakins.
“The further away the problem gets from where it started, the harder it will be to be resolved. That’s where it starts to frustrate people.”
♦ Gretchen Saunders, chief business officer: $149,730
Saunders, 47, joined the district in 2001 and is in charge of budgeting, payroll and procurement.
♦ Alberto Vazquez-Matos, chief of staff: $148,015
A new position, the chief of staff will oversee the inner-workings of the school district, including human resources, information and technology, charter schools, facilities and security.
Vazquez-Matos, 40, began his career in New York in 2000 as a high school dean. He worked as a school administrator in New York, mostly in private schools, until moving to Florida in 2010.
For the last five years, he has served as the schools superintendent for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saint Petersburg, where he oversaw about 50 schools.
“I was very impressed with the way he led that organization,” Eakins said.
♦ Anna Brown, chief information and technology officer: $146,915
Brown, 46, has worked for the district since 1992. She oversees testing, information technology and the district’s teacher evaluation system.
♦ Van Ayres, deputy superintendent: $144,453
Ayres, 40, started with the district as a teacher in 1997 and is currently Jefferson High School principal. He will oversee the district’s leadership development programs, career and technical programs and some district divisions, including curriculum and instruction and student services.
He will be responsible for leading efforts to achieve district goals, including improving the graduation rate.
Last year, Jefferson saw the largest graduation rate increase in the district, jumping from 75 percent to 84 percent.
♦ Stephanie Woodford, chief human resources officer: $139,029
Woodford, 48, has worked for the district since 2002, and is in charge of employee relations, benefits and professional standards.
♦ Chris Farkas, chief operating officer: $137,248
Previously the district’s facilities chief, Farkas, 42, got a new job title as part of Eakins’ reorganization. He heads up the facilities, maintenance, transportation and custodial departments.
The school board unanimously approved the staff changes Tuesday. More are expected to come on June 23.
“I think you’ve got seasoned veterans that would join with new people who don’t know as much about public education as some of the others,” board member Carol Kurdell said during Tuesday’s meeting. “On the whole, you have a unique opportunity to bring a group together and see if we can further our work for student achievement.”