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Today, Polk County Public Schools is mourning the loss of former Superintendent Dr. Gail McKinzie.
McKinzie, Polk County’s first appointed superintendent, has passed away at age 71.
Friends and colleagues recalled McKinzie as a fearless trailblazer in local education who was passionate about serving Polk County’s youth.
The Missouri native began her educational career as a classroom teacher and went on to serve as a principal and district administrator. She earned her doctorate in education from Iowa State University in 1976. She arrived in Polk County as a proven leader, having been superintendent in Lee’s Summit, Mo. and Indian Prairie School District 204 in Illinois.
McKinzie, who served as Polk’s superintendent from November 2004 to November 2010, made an immediate impression on her coworkers.
“When she came here, it was a huge splash,” said School Board Attorney Wes Bridges. “She had a sterling track record coming to us. She took control of this district with a calm, firm hand on the tiller and immediately began to turn the ship around.”
He recalled McKinzie as a “consummate professional” who ran the district with “grace and dignity.”
“Even with a quiet voice, everyone heard her,” Bridges said. “No one was ever in doubt there was a leader in the room.”
McKinzie was dedicated to preserving the arts in local education. In 2007, she was named Superintendent of the Year by the Florida Art Education Association. She also made an impact in Polk County by expanding schools’ access to technology and Advanced Placement courses, creating a uniform curriculum for students, and increasing the district’s graduation rate.
“I never had the pleasure of working with Dr. McKinzie, but I have had the honor of following in her footsteps,” said Jacqueline M. Byrd, Polk County’s current superintendent. “She set high standards for Polk County Public Schools and never wavered in her vision of educational excellence for the students we serve. We are the beneficiaries of her leadership, professionalism, and heartfelt belief in the power of public education. She will truly be missed.”
Ann Tankson, a former associate superintendent for Polk County Public Schools, said McKinzie had a gift for identifying talent in others, and used it to help achieve the district’s goals.
“She had this way about her, where she got people to perform to the best of their ability,” said Tankson, who now works as a consultant for the district. “She didn’t micromanage, but she had high expectations.”
Tankson said she remembers McKinzie as “very mission- and vision-driven.”
“She started with the end in mind,” Tankson said. “So she put in place the right people with the right skills and resources, and she provided the direction to get us where we needed to go.”
School Board member Kay Fields said McKinzie has a special place in the history of Polk County Public Schools.
“She was the glue that kept everything together as we transitioned from an elected to an appointed superintendent,” Fields said. “A woman of strength, of no nonsense and a genuine love for children, our school district is all the better for her having served as our first appointed superintendent.”
School Board member Billy Townsend got to know McKinzie while he was training for Stepping Out for Education, a fundraiser that benefits the Polk Education Foundation. McKinzie, who had participated in the fundraiser years prior, danced competitively and would visit from her current home in Texas to dance at the same Lakeland studio where Townsend practiced. He described her as graceful.
“She continued to maintain a foothold here in Polk County, quite literally,” Townsend said. “She was always pleasant and kind, and it was clear Polk County remained in her heart.”