Duval School Board picks short-term superintendent

Dr. Nikolai Vitti leaves at end of week for similar job in Detroit

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla.Duval County Public Schools has a new leader after the school board voted unanimously Wednesday morning to offer the position of superintendent temporarily to Dr. Patricia Willis.

According to state rules, the board can't name an “interim” superintendent, but when nominees were named this week for an emergency replacement for Dr. Nikolai Vitti, who is leaving at the end of the week to be a superintendent in Detroit, the board members agreed they wanted to consider candidates who would not want the job long-term.

The board will continue to search for a permanent replacement for Vitti, whose resignation was officially accepted Thursday.

In the meantime, the district will be in the hands of Willis, the first African-American woman to run Duval County Public Schools.

“I'm just extremely excited. I will always be committed to Duval County,” said Willis, who spent 35 years with DCPS and was deputy superintendent when she retired in 2012. “I never imagined I would serve in this role after my retirement, but I am so honored and humbled.”

Before being hired to run DCPS, Willis provided education consulting throughout the state through her own company, PSW Consulting LLC.

"It's always about the kids and as one of my principal friends used to say, 'Everything we do, we put a kid's face on it,'" Willis said. "There may be some times where we're at odds, but again we have to remember that we still have a common goal and our common goal is student achievement for our kids and making sure they have the best opportunity for a high-quality education." 

Willis received board chair Paula Wright’s recommendation. She was offered the job over candidate Dr. Earl Lennard, who was superintendent of Hillsborough County schools from 1996 to 2005.

During discussion after each candidate was interviewed, several of the board members indicated they felt Willis was the closest to an internal candidate that they could have, because of her previous experience with Duval County. She was also born and raised in Jacksonville and attended Duval County schools.

Wright added that in addition to her familiarity with the district, Willis could offer a fresh set of eyes for Duval County's current issues, because of her time away from the district.

“She's that good go-between,” Wright said. “Actually, I'll say an excellent go-between, because she has served as deputy superintendent for 4½ years, yet has been disconnected directly from Duval County for also about five years.”

Willis also said that she plans on keeping a number of the programs put in place by Vitti, but that she will look deep into programs to see what improvements can be made. She said that she doesn't plan on making any major changes, saying that two new superintendents in a short time frame would already be enough for students and teachers.

One of her first big challenges will be balancing the budget. Another will be dealing with the fallout if controversial House Bill 7069 passes, because it could close several Duval County schools.

“When we talk about shutting schools, because schools are the core of a community -- home, church and school -- and when we remove one of those, we have some concerns in the community, so I will definitely be looking at that and supporting the board,” Willis said.

Willis was educated at the University of North Florida and NOVA Southeastern University, then earned her doctorate of education from the University of Pennsylvania.

The annual salary for Willis will be the same as Vitti's, $275,000, but because she likely won't be in the position for a full year, it would be based on a monthly rate of about $23,000.

Willis’ contract was approved Thursday, and her first day will be Monday.