Management shake-up for hillsborough schools includes hires from within, out-of-state electricity invented what year

TAMPA — Almost a year to the day since he became Hillsborough County’s public school superintendent, Jeff Eakins on Tuesday introduced eight top administrators who he said would continue his mission to deliver the best possible education in a large and vastly diverse district.

To oversee eight areas of the county, he chose candidates from out of state, from other departments and from the original pool of area leaders. And a year after he created a new department for high-needs schools, he collapsed it, reasoning that the work of serving them is better done at the area offices.

Almost from the outset, Eakins has tried to decentralize much of the district’s work and give area superintendents more prominence and autonomy. In his vision, downtown workers should support, not dictate to the schools and their communities.

Those returning to area superintendent posts, although in new territories, are Lisa Yost, Marcos Murillo and Sharon Morris. Owen Young, who spent the last year as area superintendent for the high-needs "Elevate" schools, will be a fourth area superintendent over a territory that includes two of those schools — McLane Middle and Sligh Middle.

Information and technology officer Anna Brown and Student Success director Shaylia McRae were each given an area. For the last two, Eakins hired Donell Underdue Jr., a top administrator in Chicago Public Schools, and Michelle Fitzgerald, an assistant superintendent in small district west of the Chicago.

But critics, who heard rumors of Sykes’ and Young’s reassignments in the past week, questioned whether Eakins’ administration was committed to progress in the black community and in largely black schools. Sykes was one of the district’s highest-ranking African American administrators. And Lewis Brinson announced his retirement rather than re-applying for the job of chief diversity officer.

Eakins also kept two cabinet members who have faced challenges in the past year. Chris Farkas will remain chief operating officer, a job that includes supervising the long-troubled transportation system. And, despite the board’s confusion in 2015 about the district’s reserve fund, Gretchen Saunders will remain chief business officer. As announced earlier, Stephanie Woodford will remain human resources chief.

The reorganization is perhaps the biggest challenge Eakins undertook this year, but it’s not the only one. Shortly after he took over, he learned of an operational deficit of more than $100 million, and had to correct it to save the district’s credit. He was also charged with concluding a seven-year teaching reform partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In doing so, Eakins shifted the program’s focus from peer evaluations to increased training and mentoring.

More recently, the district has been under pressure from those opposed to a federal directive that allows transgender students to use the school restroom of their choice. For the second time this month, dozens of speakers lined up at the afternoon board meeting to make the case that children could be traumatized or worse if they have to share restrooms and locker rooms with students of other genders.