Hillsborough school superintendent Addison Davis resigns

After leading the district during and after COVID-19, the superintendent will return to the Jacksonville area.

Tampa Bay Times | By Marlene Sokol | June 15, 2023

Hillsborough County Superintendent Addison Davis is resigning his position as leader of the nation’s seventh-largest school district, effective July 14, officials said Thursday.

The announcement happened during a morning meeting of administrators.

It is not clear what Davis’ next professional move will be, but he has long been rumored to be an unofficial candidate for the top job in Duval County.

Duval Superintendent Diana Greene retired at the end of the school year, facing state scrutiny over her handling of misconduct claims involving district employees. School board members launched their search on Wednesday, saying they expected the effort to take months.

When questioned about the Duval job last week by a Tampa Bay Times reporter, Davis said he was not applying for the job. But he did not discount the idea that someone might offer it to him.

Property records show Davis and his wife, Natalie Davis, sold their home in Apollo Beach in September 2022 after purchasing a home in Clay County’s Fleming Island in late August.

In a letter released Thursday morning, Davis thanked his Hillsborough colleagues, listed the school district’s accomplishments during his tenure and said he was headed back home to the Jacksonville area.

“This is one of the most difficult decisions that I have ever had to make as our work in (Hillsborough County Public Schools) is not done,” the letter said.

“With this said, I have the opportunity to return to northeast Florida where my entire family resides. As (the district) moves toward finding the next educational leader, my hope is that each school board member will seek to hire a leader that has the skill set to build upon the educational foundation that has been established during my tenure.”

Eighth grader Emma Cleary, 13, and Hillsborough County Superintendent Addison Davis share a moment during a news conference at Rodgers Middle in Riverview on Wednesday, August 4, 2021.
Eighth grader Emma Cleary, 13, and Hillsborough County Superintendent Addison Davis share a moment during a news conference at Rodgers Middle in Riverview on Wednesday, August 4, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Davis, 47, was hired in 2020 to replace Jeff Eakins, a longtime Hillsborough educator who served five years as superintendent and then retired.

Davis said early on that he wanted instructors to teach “like your hair’s on fire.” Years later, employees remembered that quote — and not always fondly.

Originally from Jacksonville, Davis joined Hillsborough after a long career in the Duval County system, followed by one term as an elected superintendent in neighboring Clay County.

With a thick business plan called “Accelerate Hillsborough,” the data-driven Davis endeavored to raise academic skills in dozens of the district’s older and mostly urban schools.

But he was immediately hit with the COVID-19 pandemic. The week he began his new job, the state ordered all schools closed, and Davis was forced to lead the transition to distance learning.

Over the next few months, he realized the district’s finances were worse than he had imagined. He also faced a prevailing sentiment among school board members against charter schools, which placed the district at odds with the state’s Republican leadership.

Davis’ job was in jeopardy when school principals complained about his management style in an anonymous survey that was submitted to the board in 2021. Around the same time, state leaders ordered Hillsborough to get control over its finances. The board stood behind Davis as he hired a new chief financial officer and found ways to cut expenses and improve the district’s credit ratings.

Hoping to keep him in his position, the board gave Davis a favorable evaluation a year later and extended his contract until 2027.

Davis oversaw an improvement in school grades, decreasing the number of D and F schools from 28 before he arrived to 14 in 2022.

But his team was unable to convince voters to approve a local option property tax to support teacher pay raises. Relations were tense between the district and its unions. Salary negotiations hit an impasse.

Eventually, the district gave the teachers their scheduled raises. On Thursday, union president Rob Kriete said in a statement that the organization wished Davis well, but added: “Our Hillsborough schools remain understaffed as meeting our students’ needs has become as difficult as ever.”

Davis spent much of the last year trying to change school attendance boundaries to make the system more efficient, with a better balance of resources among schools. That project hit roadblocks and delays. The finished plan, which includes the temporary closing of five schools in 2024, is scheduled to come before the school board for a final vote on Tuesday.

School board members reacted to the news about Davis with a combination of empathy and uncertainty.

“I don’t think this was an easy decision for him,” said member Jessica Vaughn. “He and I have had a long journey in our relationship.” But, she said, “I appreciate his work ethic and I think he has done a good job here.”

Hillsborough School Superintendent Addison Davis addresses the media after an emergency meeting where the school board voted to require masks for students and staff on Aug. 18, 2021.
Hillsborough School Superintendent Addison Davis addresses the media after an emergency meeting where the school board voted to require masks for students and staff on Aug. 18, 2021. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Chairperson Nadia Combs said Davis’ accomplishments set the district on a strong course for the future. “I feel that he has done the heavy lifting and I have to thank him for that,” she said.

The board’s newest member, Patti Rendon, said Davis’ leadership “was instrumental during a very difficult time in both our district’s history and our country’s history.” She said she now wants to look for a superintendent “that’s going to be innovative, financially solid and look at taking our district to the next level.”

Board member Lynn Gray called for a national search to find a successor. “We’re the seventh-largest district in the nation, so we want to be as objective and thorough as possible,” she said. “We don’t want just any Tom, Dick or Harry.”

Member Karen Perez agreed with the national search idea, but said it might be best if it leads to a local leader. Under Davis, she said, “there was a lot of turmoil in many board meetings because there was a disconnect from the community and its needs.”

Throughout the state and nation, superintendents are coming under increased pressure because of culture issues and the injection of partisan politics into the running of schools.

Some have been forced out of their jobs. Bill Montford, chief executive of the state superintendents’ association, said it is significant that Davis is leaving on his own terms. “There would be plenty of people who would be pleased to have Addison on their team,” he said.

It is not clear, however, what his chances are at landing the Duval position.

“Many people in Duval think an awful lot of Addison Davis,” said Kelly Coker, chairperson of the Duval County School Board. “We are excited to hear what his next chapter is, because he is an incredible educator.”

But she added, “We haven’t even hired a search firm. We are planning a very transparent, very public search.”

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