When you were first elected as Pasco County Schools Superintendent in August 2012 you came to the position in what some would consider “unconventional” as your experience was outside of the public education realm. Prior to seeking the superintendency, you served as Florida’s Secretary of State under both Governor Rick Scott and Governor Charlie Crist and serving 27 years as Pasco County School Supervisor of Elections prior to your appointment to Secretary of State.
How did your public service prior to being elected help prepare you for the job of being a Florida public school district superintendent?
Certainly, my prior work experience helped me navigate the political side of being a superintendent. That said, I really don’t think that anyone can be totally prepared to deal with the issues that face superintendents in today’s climate. My “secret” to the successes I have had was to surround myself with highly competent people that deeply believe in the mission of the organization and turn them loose. You hold people accountable for their actions while coaching and counseling to ensure the organization is moving forward. As I like to say, “I may not be an educator by birth” but I am managing a $1.5 billion organization that has as its mission to provide a world-class education to each child. My team is a high performing team that is committed to the students and families of our district.
What was the impetus that led you to pursue being a public school superintendent?
I was very concerned about the direction of my district, the one that I had graduated from, as well as my family. I knew we could do better. Some of my friends had approached me with the idea of running and at first, I rejected it. It wasn’t until I was convinced that I, along with others, could make a positive difference in the lives of our kids that I committed myself to the task.
You have said on more than one occasion that “being a public school superintendent is the most challenging job you have ever had.” With that thought in mind:
a. What is it that compels you to continue serving as a superintendent knowing full well the challenges and frustrations that come with the job?
Singularly, the difference you can have on a student’s life. Providing opportunities, within the system, for students to achieve something that they may have thought was not possible. Even during the “tough” times, I always come back to why I am here. Since becoming superintendent, we have expanded the academic choices that all students have, in elementary and secondary, to become better prepared to meet the challenges of a really tough world.
b. What changes would you like to see that could assist superintendents in being able to more effectively and efficiently run a school district?
Superintendents need to always remember that they are the instructional leaders of their districts. It’s important to make sure the lights and AC are one and the buses are running on time, but your priority must be the academic performance of each student. Are the resources being provided to your teachers for them to be successful? Are you providing high quality instructional materials in each classroom? Are you creating an engaging learning environment where students are supported and encouraged to try new things? These are the things that need to be the priority of each superintendent.
What do you feel is the most challenging barrier at this time in meeting the educational needs of students in your district?
Certainly, COVID has had such a negative impact on student learning over the last 18 months. We need to stay keenly focused on how we are going to catch kids up while at the same time, moving the academic needle forward. Funding is always a challenge. There are so many things that we could do better if the funding was available to our teachers and students.
What do you feel is the most pressing issue facing public education as a whole?
I have always said that public K-12 cannot educate kids on their own. I am a strong believer that community engagement is critical in achieving the academic results that we tirelessly work for every day. Engaging parents in the day-to-day education paramount. Engaging our business stakeholders to support public education is beneficial not only for our schools but the business community as well. Our students are our future workforce.
What is an innovative/impactful initiative in your school district that you are most proud of during your tenure as a superintendent?
I am so proud of the Pasco County School District. There are several initiatives that we have undertaken that have had profound impacts on our students. First, expanding Cambridge and IB programs throughout our district in every grade level. This initiative has provided opportunities that most of our students would not have had access to before becoming superintendent. Second, our work with Equal Opportunity Schools in removing barriers to students wanting to attempt higher rigor coursework. We have been so successful in this initiative that College Board named the Pasco District as their Large District of the Year in 2020. These initiatives have provided equitable opportunities for all our students.
If you had the ability to change one thing in the realm of public education, what would that be?
A greater understanding of parents and legislative leaders of the challenges of our public K-12 system. There has been so much placed on public K-12 today that it oftentimes seems that we are trying to slay the giant with a table knife.
Outside of being a superintendent, what is something that your colleagues may not know about you that you would like to share.
I love gardening and my beekeeping. I have a peach orchard with about 1600 trees that keeps me pretty busy. Being outdoors working in my yard and garden is my “happy place.” It’s where I go to release the daily pressures of being a superintendent. I also like to “run.” I have completed at least five half marathons. I actually completed the Disney Dopey Challenge in 2019 by running a 5K, 10K, half marathon and a full marathon in one weekend. Planning to do it again in January 2022.