TAMPA — The Hillsborough School Board gave superintendent Jeff Eakins a new three-year contract, telling him at a meeting Tuesday evening that they were amazed he turned down offers of a raise.
Eakins, who makes $225,000 a year plus benefits, refused to take a standard 3 percent increase after the first year of the new contract. He also declined, during negotiations, to consider the higher salaries of superintendents in other districts, leaving his pay rate unchanged.
The board considered including two $2,000 yearly bonuses if he improved the graduation rate and built up the main reserve account. They liked the grad rate incentive, but ended up deciding that he shouldn't be paid more for spending less, given the district's enormous financial challenges and funding cuts from the state.
The board, which approved the contract by a 6-1 vote, agreed to keep the $2,000 grad rate incentive and add another incentive later.
"My bonus is going to be when every student, every teacher, every employee becomes successful," Eakins told the board.
That kind of statement has endeared Eakins to members who tired of the hard-driving style of his predecessor, MaryEllen Elia.
Eakins was seen as a healer when they hired him in 2015, without a national search, to lead the nation's eighth largest school district.
On Tuesday, member Sally Harris, who cast the tie-breaking vote to hire him, praised his thoughtfulness and "approachable" personality.
"We gave this district somebody who believes in servant leadership," she said.
Susan Valdes was equally effusive. "You're an amazing leader," she said.
Tamara Shamburger, whose district includes some of Hillsborough's poorest neighborhoods and most challenging schools, said, "You're working really, really hard to turn every school around."
Less supportive was Melissa Snively, who cast the dissenting vote. She said Eakins was too reactive and that, as a mother of four students, she still sees too many problems with bullying and crowded buses.
Safety, she said, will be compromised even more with busing cutbacks that will take effect this fall for middle and high school.
She wanted to give Eakins just a one-year extension.
Despite the kind words offered by other board members, several warned that the district faces daunting challenges.
Eakins, in his first weeks on the job, learned the district was spending down its reserves so quickly that its credit rating was suffering. His staff found ways to slash spending.
But with new population growth, the district faces more than $1 billion in construction needs on top of another $1 billion in debt, and nearly $1 billion more in deferred maintenance, mostly roofs and air conditioners.
To save money, some board members are suggesting the district renegotiate a pay plan adopted during Elia's administration that gives most teachers a $4,000 raise every three years.
"I hope our employees understand that there are some very, very tough decisions that are coming as a result of all the things that we have found over the last two years," said board member April Griffin.
And there's concern that the district doesn't communicate effectively, making district schools less competitive than they could be among the growing charter school sector.
"Competition should inspire us to do our best," Snively said.
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @marlenesokol.