The Duval County School Board unanimously voted Wednesday to hire Patricia Willis, who has a 35-year history with the district, as temporary superintendent.
Willis, a Jacksonville native, has been a Duval teacher, principal, district professional development director and deputy superintendent. After retiring in 2012, she earned a doctorate degree and was an education consultant in Florida and Georgia.
“I will always be committed to Duval County,” said Willis after the board’s vote. “I never imagined that I would serve in this role after retirement but I am so honored and humbled that I’d been asked to do it.”
Willis said her first step as superintendent is to meet with board members and district cabinet leaders to find out what initiatives they’re already working on and if they have any concerns.
She said she plans to keep focusing on continuing the reform work of her soon-to-be predecessor, Nikolai Vitti, who is leaving at the end of the week to become Detroit Public Schools Community District superintendent. She said it wouldn’t be wise to embark on another direction in her position, but acknowledged some tweaks may be necessary.
“We will continue to build upon the things that (Vitti) has done well,” Willis said. “I will work with those who are working in the district … to look at programs a little deeply, to see what we need to do.”
She said she wants teachers and principals to feel comfortable.
“(I’m) very sensitive to the fact that when we have so many changes and then there’s a permanent successor coming in who will bring additional changes,” she said.
The board asked Willis how she plans to deal with education legislation awaiting the signature of Governor Rick Scott. If it becomes law, the district might have to close several schools as early as next year.
“Schools are the core of a community — home, church and school,” she said. “(If) we remove one of those, we have some concerns in the community so I will definitely be looking at that.”
Among other issues Willis said she will focus on includes improving literacy and she stressed the importance of professional development.
While board members decided between candidates from within and outside of the district, Board Chair Paula Wright said Willis is a good combination of both, having had Duval experience while not currently employed by the district.
“(Willis is) a person who brings a wealth of knowledge, who is already interconnected within our partnership streams and who's willing to serve and give back to our great community,” Wright said.”This is a great day for Jacksonville.”
Willis was picked over Earl Lennard, who served as Hillsborough County superintendent for nine years.
Pearl Roziers, who leads the district's school choice office, was also a candidate. Roziers, who is retiring this summer, withdrew her name from consideration after learning her rehiring would impact her retirement benefits.
The board is scheduled to vote on Willis’ contract Thursday and then embark on a national search for her permanent successor.
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Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.