Will Hartley, who Tuesday becomes the new superintendent of Bradford County Public Schools, swore that he would not become a teacher.
With his parents, aunts and uncles all having been educators in Bradford County, Hartley, 39, of Starke, said his extended family has put in 300 total years working in the school district.
The 1999 Bradford High School graduate spent time in the Cleveland Indians’ minor league baseball system before earning a physical education degree from the University of North Florida.
What was next for him?
“I did exactly what I said I was never going to do – and I became a teacher,” he said.
The father of four taught and coached baseball and softball in Starke for 10 years – one at Bradford Middle School and nine at Southside Elementary School – before deciding instead to join his wife of six years, Amber, in investing in real estate.
Hartley’s diversion from working in education changed on Election Day. The political novice and no-party affiliate candidate earned 7,143 votes (53.65%) to deny a second four-year term for Superintendent Stacey Creighton, 49, a Republican who got 6,171 votes (46.35%).
The challenger and incumbent raised $29,425 and $21,775, respectively, in campaign donations from individual donors and local businesses during the election cycle.
The results were extraordinary given it being a traditionally GOP-leaning county. President Donald Trump got 10,334 votes (75.71%) and Joseph Biden, the former vice president and now president-elect, 3,160 (23.15%). In the race for congressional representative, Republican Kat Cammack earned 9,965 votes (75.11%) and Democrat Adam Christensen only 3,302 (24.89%).
Efforts by WUFT News to reach Creighton for comment – including via email and phone messages left for her at the school district office and her home – were unsuccessful.
Hartley said he decided to run for superintendent after community members started complaining to his parents, Mike and Donna Hartley, about their local schools.
Donna Hartley worked in the Bradford district for 28 years as a teacher, guidance counselor and administrator. Mike Hartley worked in the district as a teacher, coach, athletic director and administrator for 32 years. The couple eventually transferred to Clay County Public Schools for seven years; he worked there as a teacher and coach, she as a counselor.
Hope Davis was ecstatic when she heard Will Hartley had decided to run. Davis, 40, the assistant principal at Lakeside Junior High in Clay County, spent 10 years of her teaching career in Bradford County. She left four years ago – after Creighton was elected.
Davis loved teaching in her hometown. Another Bradford High graduate, she said she was excited to work with children who have disabilities, but became frustrated with Creighton’s leadership, and knowing that some of her colleagues who were leaving did so despite pay cuts.
“All of a sudden, you’re making backwards progress again,” Davis said.
Having known him since they were in kindergarten, Davis said Hartley’s resume will set him apart from Creighton, who never worked as a teacher, though she had served 10 years on the Bradford County school board.
Bradford is one of 41 counties in Florida in which the public schools superintendent is elected. The remaining 26 superintendents are appointed by their respective county school boards.
Creighton’s supporters believe she had earned a second term. Robyn Bryant, 51, of Starke, the assistant director of Bradford Preschool & Learning Center, said Creighton did an amazing job, citing for example the improved tennis courts and football field at Bradford High.
“She has children in the school district, and as a parent she has first-hand knowledge,” Bryant said.
Stefanie Cubbedge Wiggins, 51, lives in Bradford County and owns an Allstate Insurance Agency in Gainesville. She said she has had three children graduate from Bradford High and that Creighton had earned four more years as superintendent.
“She has improved our school from past failing grades,” Wiggins said.
When Creighton took office, her district held a “C” ranking from the state education department, with one “F” school, six at “C” and one at “B.” According to the most recent data available, from the 2018-19 academic year, Bradford had one “B” school and six ranked at a “C.”
Wiggins added: “Hartley will do a good job if he doesn’t allow the union or specific parents to make major decisions.”
As superintendent, Hartley will oversee about 2,700 students and teachers, plus more than 500 other employees ranging from administrators to maintenance to clerical support.
The former teacher said his real estate experience will prove useful when it comes to managing the school district. He said that investing and renovating houses has taught him to seek the help of experts when needed, something he plans to do over the next four years.
“No one person can do this job alone,” Hartley said. “If I were looking at this job as something I have to figure out on my own, I would be easily overwhelmed.”
He added that his biggest key to success will be surrounding himself with the right people.
“The plan is to find a core group of people who have strengths where I have weaknesses, and let them go to work doing what they do best.”
Hartley said he hopes to make Bradford schools more of a community hub by hosting events that involve local businesses and parents. One idea: A movie night on the high school’s football field.
“Until everybody – the schools, the community, the parents, the children – until they are all working together, you’re not going to have your best results,” he said.
Tammy Saxon, 56, of Lawtey, works as the exceptional student education staffing specialist in the district, where she started as a paraprofessional in 1997. Saxon described Creighton’s leadership style as a “dictator mentality,” and said she was eager for a change in leadership.
“It was really alienating teachers,” Saxon said. “Teachers did not feel empowered. We felt very targeted.”
Hartley said he hopes that over the next four years that teachers start to feel supported.
“They’re the people working in the trenches day to day with the children,” he said. “They need to be heard.”