Who are we searching for to lead the Escambia County School District? Who do we want stepping into that leadership role this time next year when the school district transitions from an elected to an appointed superintendent?
This is the question at the heart of Escambia’s search for a new superintendent, and it appears the answers to this question are many.
“In this community, they want somebody who is a visionary and who can inspire educators to meet every child’s needs,” summed up Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Board Association, before listing off numerous and varied specific qualities. “People want someone with experience in communities of poverty, and someone who will be engaged in the community, and someone with experience working with state legislators, and someone with local familiarity, or maybe someone from outside the area, and the list goes on.”
Messina is getting a good feel for what Escambia residents are looking for in a new superintendent through a series of community forums the FSBA is facilitating. The final forum for this year was held Nov. 21 at Pensacola High School, with two more scheduled in January further north in the county.
During these forums—as well as an online survey open through Dec. 1—people have an opportunity to discuss the needs of the school district, and on the type of superintendent candidate, they feel that the Escambia County School Board should focus. But these discussions, where dreams of a theoretical candidate who is all things to all people take flight, are tempered with a word of caution.
“Superman, Superwoman does not exist,” Messina told those gathered in the PHS cafeteria. “We are not going to find the person that has every quality we want.”
Superintendent Wish List
Last year, Escambia County voters decided to switch from an elected superintendent of schools to one appointed by the school board. Since that time, the school district has been engaged in determining the specifics of the search process, as well as getting a read on how district staff and members of the community feel about the matter.
During the community forums, attendees are divided into small groups and asked to brainstorm about the strengths and needs of the district, as well as what qualities they feel a superintendent prospect should possess.
“You’ll notice there’s no school board member in the room. That’s intentional,” Messina told people in the PHS cafeteria. “I don’t want to know your name. I just want to carry the citizens’ message back to the school board.”
In addition to providing the input gleaned in these public forums to the school board, the community input—publicly available on the district’s website—will also help inform applicants to the position of just what the community is looking for in a new superintendent.
“The candidates that come to the interview, when they even apply, they look at the information,” Messina said. “The candidates will be very familiar with the input that’s coming from the community.”
During the forum at PHS, people considered the district’s strengths, needs and prospective superintendent qualities—with each topic allotted a 10-minute window for discussion—and Messina scrawled them all on a large pad of paper on an easel. The resulting lists painted a picture of a district facing challenges, while also cultivating bright spots.
“These are the things we want to wrap our arms around and protect,” Messina explained, which included strong Parent Teacher Associations and athletic programs, adequate funding and good school security, as well as a nod toward the district’s magnet schools and International Baccalaureate program.
As far as issues within the district that need attention, people were concerned about the teacher-student ratio, as well as teacher pay and available support for teachers. Other concerns spoke to the district’s more daunting and pressing challenges—the rate of out-of-school suspensions and the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, the lack of African American teachers and a concerning graduation rate for black males.
Attendees also expressed concerns about the district’s school choice program being “too broad,” its administration “too top-heavy,” and not enough focus on trade- or career-oriented tracks. “Not everyone is going to get a four-year degree,” pointed out Pensacola City Councilwoman Jewel Cannada-Wynn.
The attendees provided a wishlist that likewise offered a glimpse into the community’s mind’s eye, where that proverbial Superman or Superwoman superintendent resides.
Some of the sought-after qualities listed off were rather general—people want someone that’s “innovative,” “openminded” and has “common sense” and “street smarts”—while others were simple statements of emotions—“empathy,” “love.”
But some of the qualities were more defined. People would like to see a superintendent who has experienced success elsewhere, one who will promote teacher recruitment efforts. They want someone who possesses “cultural awareness” and embraces diversity. They want someone with experience with special-needs students and at-risk students. They want someone with business experience and open to constructive criticism. They want someone with academic experience with either a master’s or doctorate degree.
Another thing that the community has expressed interest in over the course of these public forums—perhaps a change from the usual white-male model of leadership.
“There is an openness for sure to have a nontraditional—they’re open to females, open to minorities, open to whatever you’ve got,” Messina said.
Who’s Eyeing Escambia?
Messina sounded pretty confident that Escambia will have a number of candidates interested in taking a swing at the superintendent position when it opens to applicants in April.
“A lot of people want to come to Escambia County,” she said, mentioning that she had already spoken with multiple interested candidates.
There are candidates that will be attracted to the district’s coastal locale. And there are those who will appreciate the area’s embrace of the military and proximity to Naval Air Station Pensacola.
And there are also superintendent candidates who will not flinch when faced with Escambia’s challenges, notably the divide between students residing in the district’s varied corners. This variety of candidate will, Messina noted, run toward such challenges.
“There are some superintendents who want urban challenges,” she said. “They don’t want an easy district.”
The next opportunity to attend a public forum focused on the selection of a new superintendent will come Jan. 7 at Beulah Middle School. Two days later, Jan. 9, a forum will be held at Tate High School.
After considering the input gathered during these forums, as well as the online survey and inter-district meetings, the Escambia County School Board will begin casting its net in the spring and has set an application deadline of June 26.
Finalists for the superintendent position will be identified and interviewed in August 2020. These candidates will also be asked to attend a community event designed to give the public a chance to meet the prospects. A final superintendent selection will be made by September, with a start date for the position in November.