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Hillsborough’s Eakins gets high praise for finances, mixed reviews on other issues in his annual School Board evaluations

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins is proud of his record in boosting high school graduation rates and inroads he has made in marketing the nation’s eight largest school district.

His seven bosses on the School Board? Their opinions are a mixed bag of praise, concern and, in one case, criticism directed largely at other board members.

It’s evaluation time for the 53-year-old superintendent who has held the top job for more than three years, including a four-month interim stint after the board fired his predecessor, MaryEllen Elia.

Almost immediately, Eakins realized the district was in financial distress. Most of the board members praised him for taking steps to straighten out spending.

He was criticized early on for weak communication skills. This time, in the self-evaluation that was included with the others on Tuesday’s School Board meeting agenda, he highlighted new, proactive communications strategies, that were influenced by a crisis management firm.

He cited photo and video pieces his staff distributed in September, when the district converted dozens of schools into storm shelters. "Intentionally up-front and forward-looking communications around Hurricane Irma led school community to feel supported during the crisis and improved our district’s image in our community," he wrote.

Sally Harris, the board chairwoman, gave Eakins the highest score, a 29, even higher than the 24 he gave himself.

While lamenting that the superintendent can be slow to implement changes, Harris wrote, "Jeff Eakins has risen to each challenge and never forgets to keep our students as his focus.

April Griffin’s posted form, which gave Eakins a 23, did not include written remarks. She gave him a zero in communicating with stakeholders. Nothing was posted from member Melissa Snively.

Cindy Stuart offered praise and a 21. "For the third year again, I am impressed with the progress we have made in our financials," she wrote. "You continue to maintain the highest level of integrity and honesty with board members, your team and the community."

Susan Valdes, who gave Eakins a 23, cautioned him to pay attention to workplace bullying and a practice, at some schools, of withdrawing struggling students before testing season, as a way of manipulating the schools’ scores.

Some criticism and a score of 18 came from Tamara Shamburger, whose District 5 includes many of Hillsborough’s highest-poverty, highest-minority schools.

Those schools "remain in a perpetual state of peril," Shamburger wrote, reminding Eakins of a lingering achievement gap and racial disparities in discipline. "Equity needs to be more of a practice and less of a theory," she wrote.

Recently, Eakins announced he is creating an "achievement zone" for schools that need help.

The most pointed and voluminous critiques came from board member Lynn Gray. She took issue with a decision this past year to fold the district’s safety office into its operations division. Citing constituents, she said the district is too cooperative with for-profit charter school operators.

Gray made references to "three school board members" who, in her opinion, contribute to low morale in the workforce and continued financial stress.

"Each influences the decisions of our superintendent versus the other way around," she wrote. While not naming the three members, she wrote that they were among the four who fired Elia and hired the "untested" Eakins without a national search.

Eakins has a three-year contract that expires in 2020.

He earns $225,000 a year. The evaluations do not directly affect his employment, but exist for feedback.

How the Hillsborough County School Board members scored Superintendent Jeff Eakins

Eakins’ self-evaluation 24

Sally Harris, chair 29

Tamara Shamburger 18

Lynn Gray 15

April Griffin 23

Melissa Snively n/a

Cindy Stuart 21

Susan Valdes 23

Source: Hillsborough County School District

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.

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