As a Hillsborough County School District administrator, Terrence Connor knew he wanted to run things.  Then a political sea change in Florida school board elections across the state created more opportunities than ever. Sarasota County’s high-performing school district offered him the chance to serve as superintendent of schools for the first time in his career. The catch? He joined the district after the controversial firing of former Superintendent Brennan Asplen to work for a deeply divided School Board at a moment when scrutiny of schools at the classroom and district levels reached an all-time high. 

How do you like the job so far? How does it differ from your last job as a deputy superintendent?  Terrence Connor: I thought going into it, it's going to be extremely challenging. I've been pleasantly surprised. The community here, the support of all of the people that I work with internally, honestly I really can't put into words that it's been a great transition. Regardless of maybe headlines and things you see in the paper, what's happening day to day has been a really positive experience. As the deputy superintendent, you have one person to answer to. That’s your superintendent. He's giving you the charge and you're carrying out the mission. The biggest change when you step into the role of a superintendent, you have five board members you have to work and collaborate with, knowing each of them have different perspectives. They have different backgrounds that come with a different lens. Some may have educational experiences, business experiences, some are coming from a parent lens. It's not like a boss-employee relationship. But you as the superintendent want to carry out our mission and unify the collective decision making of the five. You've got to spend a lot of time listening, investing in each one of them as equitably as possible, and hopefully making the right decisions.

When you applied, there were a lot of superintendent jobs open around the state. Knowing the circumstances here—an election seemed to immediately lead to the last superintendent’s termination—did that give you any pause?  I obviously knew of the history with the last administration, but I didn't let that determine anything. I've been in this work now for 20 years, I have come to realize that what you see in the headlines isn't necessarily what's playing out day to day. I felt it could be a potential good fit. While I was focused on Osceola (County Schools), thinking that that's where I wanted to be, obviously things led differently. I made the decision to actually bow out of Osceola. In the late hours leading up to their meeting. I called the search firm and said Sarasota is going to be the best fit, while I don't know if they're going to choose me. I made the personal decision just to bow out of Osceola and go all in on Sarasota, and the rest is history. In this job, you’re not thinking about your contract. It's the significant responsibility that you hold as a superintendent. You've got roughly 50,000 students under your care. That comes with a burden. It comes with a heavy responsibility. I put my sights on what the mission is and what I need to do to create an effective school system. The reality is, superintendents are at-will employees and when the majority of the board are not aligned with the vision of the superintendent, then changes occur. I'm very aware that could be a possibility, but I hope I can always work collaboratively with the board.

How long are you here? I hope to retire here honestly. I've got 20 years in education. I've always said I'm going to do 30, and then I may do something else. I would love to stay here for 10 or 10-plus years. I've got two students that are in the system. My daughter will graduate in 2026. My son will graduate in 2029. My daughter Peyton is at Riverview High School. And then Owen is a seventh grader at Sarasota Middle. I definitely would love to see them graduate from Sarasota County Schools, and then hopefully retire.  My daughter is very active with the band at Riverview High School and has found a great niche there. 

There's been a lot of focus on literacy rates. Can you tell me the most successful, quantified improvements under your watch? We're making rapid improvement, but you want to make sure you have sustainability. How are we developing the system, not trying to just get a quick bump and a score?  Every one of our principal meetings have been redesigned to focus on building their instructional leadership capacity to help facilitate that work in their schools. We've revised many of our literacy job descriptions, so our literacy intervention is more specific and provides instruction around the science of reading. We've created a screening process where we want to make sure the people who are going into these roles have all the qualifications and are going to be the right fit. But it's going to take time to really hardwire that in the system. You can't put all this in place and think that it's all going to be ironed out the first year. In the long run, it's going to build a sustainable framework to see increases all the way through 10th grade, which is the last year students take that assessment. We've had two rounds of progress monitoring for the state. The third round is the one that counts for all of the school grades and the district grades at the end of the year. So far, we've seen an 18-point (increase) from the first (state reading test) to the second in third-grade literacy. More important to me is to look where we were last year at mid-year. Around December of last year, we were at 43% proficiency in third grade. In December, it was 51%. So you're sitting eight points higher than you were last year at the same time. 

What sort of overall philosophy do you feel like you are bringing to this job? One of the best things about serving in this capacity and having school-aged children, I want my kids to have the best possible educational opportunities, and every student in Sarasota County should have the same ones. Literacy is key because it helps you across the board on becoming more knowledgeable in life. I think students need to become critical thinkers. It's not always, we just tell them what they should be thinking, we should be teaching them how to think about problems, how to problem-solve so they can make an impact in the world. Not every student is going to go to a four-year university, so what are we doing to ensure every student has a plan after they leave us in that 12th grade year? Have we equipped them, whether it is an Ivy League school or maybe the military, or it’s a career in the workforce. It's just having robust pathways for students, so no matter what you want to do, you're going to be successful and we've helped you prepare to get there.

We hear more talk about vocational education than we did 10 years ago. Do you think there's a sea change in the outlook with education? Absolutely. You can see that even from legislation, even the focus from the governor. Here, there's been a huge push around workforce development, training and education. You have students who can go to an 18-month, two-year program and come out making as much or more than many students who did four years or maybe even a master's degree. There are a lot of high-wage, in-demand jobs. We are very keen on looking at the demands in the local workforce and aligning our programs.

Recently, school board elections have been divisive. Do you view your philosophy on education as a “conservative” approach? Effective leadership really does transcend political ideology or affiliations. It's about what your vision is as a leader, what you're committed to, what you're going to expect in terms of outcomes, and ensuring that you do focus on the student. I don't come through any lens of politics. When you start to do that, it does become divisive. You've got to be careful as a superintendent to rise above the political ideologies and keep the focus on the right thing, which is education. Every leader has different priorities. But it's really important to, as much as you can, stay out of the fray of politics. 

Some Sarasota County board members don't get along right now. How do you balance any direction you're receiving? It's explaining why you're moving in a direction, even though we may not be on the same page as to what it should be. I try to stay level-headed all the time. Sometimes emotions can create even more problems. You don't make decisions to make people happy. When you do that, everyone at some point is mad at you. It's a tough part of the job, because at the end of the day, you want to have unanimous support about all the things you do. That's just not the reality, because people have different perspectives. When you have a board, though, that trusts their superintendent and allows them to make those decisions, that makes things much better.

Has the personal scandal around Bridget Ziegler impacted the relationship you have with her as a school board member or the relationship between the board and the administration? Not at all. It's been a very effective relationship, actually. There's really been no change in the day to day in terms of where we were prior and where we are now. It's a strong relationship. I think she is seeing the fruits of a lot of the initiatives and starting to see some results and movement. I feel like every day I build a little more trust and respect with our board members because we're getting to know each other. Regardless of what's transpired outside of that, each and every day, that relationship with all five of my board members has improved and gotten stronger over time.

You mentioned the governor. Some of his education policies have been controversial with teachers. Do you have problems with retention or with interpreting how these policies impact what happens inside the classroom? I’m thinking of the critical race theory ban or the parental rights bill. In terms of retention, I would be speaking out of turn, I would want to analyze our exit surveys. Sometimes legislation can be not as concrete. There may be interpretation we do, and we rely heavily on our legal counsel to provide as much insight and give us a sound opinion. But how people internalize legislation could vary, right? It's all on how people interpret the law and how it affects them. Everyone has their opinion on that. For us, it's just trying to provide as much clarity around these topics so people feel comfortable, and they don't feel like, if I misstep, something bad's going to happen.

What do you tell teachers their goals should be in the classroom? If students feel connected, once they feel supported by their teachers, the sky's the limit. The goal for teachers is always to make those connections with students to build an environment where they're challenged academically, and relationships are very important to that end goal.  Also, fostering that critical thinking, so you're really preparing students to be effective citizens in our society. It's not just about rote memorization or knowledge.