Four finalists for Escambia County superintendent share how they would approach the job

Jim Little Pensacola News JournalPublished 5:59 PM EDT Aug 28, 2020The Escambia County School Board is just a

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The Escambia County School Board is just a few days away from selecting the first-ever appointed superintendent for the school district.

The school board heard from the four final candidates Thursday during separate 90-minute interviews in which board members asked pre-selected questions. Each candidate also took questions selected from members of the public for 15 minutes during an online livestream Thursday night.

The district received over 113 responses from members of the public wanting to ask questions of the candidates.

Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association that is assisting the school district with the superintendent search, reviewed the questions and then asked each candidate the most commonly asked questions.

Most of the candidates' answers relied on their previous experience as examples for how they would handle situations in Escambia County.

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Earl Johnson was the first candidate to interview. Johnson is currently the executive director of leadership and operations at the Flagler County School District and has 22 years of education experience.

Johnson was asked how he'd handle the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. He said everyone has to practice social distancing, but he believes there is still a way to ensure children are educated in the age of COVID-19.

"If this is important to us, we will find a way to do it," Johnson said. "Right now, we can use different platforms to have mentoring tutoring sessions. I know in the district that I work in, we're not going to allow unessential — and I hate that word — but unessential personnel on our campus right now until we get this pandemic under control. However, we are going to stand up our tutoring and a mentoring program through Zoom."

Keith Rittel was the second candidate to interview. Rittel is the only final candidate under consideration who has already held the job of superintendent and the only out-of-state candidate to make it to the final round of interviews. He has been superintendent of the Provo City School District in Utah since 2012 and has 36 years of experience in education in school districts in Utah, Washington and Canada.

Rittel was asked what "out of the box" actions he has taken to improve his current school district.

"I know that the most frightening phrase in the district is one that I say, which is, 'I have a new idea,'" Rittel said. "And we do an awful lot of creative thinking, whether it was the learning initiative with Chromebooks, whether it's new ideas on how to come up with money for teachers, I came up with a plan."

Timothy Smith was the third candidate to interview. Smith is the executive director for the high school office of the Orange County Public Schools system in the Orlando area and has 31 years of education experience.

Smith was asked about his own research that delved into school districts' performances, comparing districts with elected superintendents versus appointed superintendents, and what he believes it means for Escambia County moving into this new system.

Smith said districts with appointed superintendents in Florida perform about 3% to 4% higher on test scores.

"What my research found out or determined was that the cause of that was not the superintendent governance structure of appointed or elected, it actually was poverty that drove that difference," Smith said. "And that was very eye opening research that took place. So the question then circles back to what do we do to help students who are in poverty have more support and resources to push those proficiency levels up. And that's a key, and that's where I'll go back to early education initiatives that the sooner we can identify gaps and push those gaps, address those gaps, and bring students up to grade level, that's what we need to do."