See the questions for Pinellas superintendent finalists
Three finalists for Pinellas County superintendent are meeting for private one-on-one interviews with board members today, after a more formal interview process yesterday.
The board asked each candidate 15 questions during yesterday's interviews. There wasn't space for all of them - or the answers - in this story, so here they are. We're not listing all answers - each candidate spoke for more than an hour total - but we'll paraphrase some of them. The school district also will run the full interviews on their website.
The candidates include Mike Grego, former superintendent of Osceola County Schools, Christian Cutter, an assistant superintendent in Colorado, and Constance Jones, chief academic officer in Lee County Schools.
1. Do we need a shift in the current thinking of public education? If yes, how would you suggest we achieve this shift in thinking?
Cutter: "I suppose you want more than a yes?" He said public education is still defined by what was done 150 years ago. "We need to be more adaptive, because we haven't been, we need to be more flexible."
Grego: Yes. "We in public education need to start to take hold of our own profession."
Jones: "I do think we need a shift, to a degree"
2. While unofficially polling our stakeholders on what they would like to see in the next superintendent, overwhelmingly the word "integrity" came up. Integrity is also one of our Core Values in our Strategic Plan. How would you describe your integrity and how it correlates to being Pinellas County's next superintendent?
Cutter: "One thing I can guarantee you is if I make a promise I'll follow through."
Grego: Integrity is doing what you say you're going to do. "My expectation is to lead by example."
Jones: It's important to be open and honest.
3. As superintendent, what would you consider to be the greatest challenges facing Pinellas County Schools? What steps would you take to overcome those challenges?
Cutter: "There's not a lot of...information I have right now." He said he has a 30,000-foot view and named low-performing schools, static salaries, morale and some "efficiencies in finance and management."
Grego: Broke it out into short-term and long-term problems. In the short term, he said there is a lot of anxiety when a new superintendent comes in. In the long-term, he listed funding, declining enrollment and state mandates.
Jones: Graduation rate, achievement gap, increase the rigor of programs. She said the new grading system has thrown "us a bit of a curve." Said need to address the introduction of the Common Core. Very excited about the early childhood initiative.
4. In your role as superintendent, who do you consider your key stakeholder groups and how will you engage them in supporting academic achievement, school safety and student and employee engagement?
Cutter: students, parents, staff
Grego: students, teachers, business community
Jones: Students and parents, the school board, teachers.
5. Our district has faced over $150 million in budget reductions over the last five years. What is your approach to the budgeting process? Where would you look? What is your method for decision-making for large complex tasks such as this?
Cutter: He said he would want to know how cuts transpired now and would hope it was kept out of the classroom "as much as possible." He would advocate decentralizing the budget for schools and emphasizing site-based management. "Who's better to prioritize these dollars (than principals and staff?)
Grego: "I like to build from the classroom out." Said a lot of flexibility has been taken away by the state and class size reduction. Likes line-item budgeting and research-based return on investment. "I want to justify each line item."
Jones: Make sure we're getting input from a lot of different people. Have to weigh certain costs against others, such as transportation and how it affects programs. The philosophy in Lee County was to stay out of the classroom. Wait longer to replace computers, carpet, etc. Also need to build up a reserve for emergencies.
6. What is your level of commitment to the Early Childhood project we've begun? What can we do to prepare our children for kindergarten?
Cutter: Described how one of his prior school districts built a check list so that parents would know what students need to be able to do by the time they enter kindergarten. "I must admit that I'm not really familiar with your early childhood project." He said he read about the Head Start application in the newspaper.
Grego: Called early childhood education a "passion." Described building early childhood centers in Osceola, including dual-language programs.
Jones: "I'm so excited that we're pursuing that." Talked about early childhood in Lee County and how some classes were combined with programs for young mothers. Can't be stand-alone programs and should be "print and literacy rich."
7. Diversity is an essential leadership competency that starts at the top. Describe the three or more benefits of a commitment to diversity in Pinellas County School District and how you plan to address diversity in processes and infrastructure.
Cutter: He related the question to his own background. His parents were in high school when he was born. He attended eight different elementary schools and lived in 20 different homes by the time he was 20 years old. He said the district needs to take a more proactive stance, resembling affirmative action to get diverse leaders into diverse schools.
Grego: Described creating an "aspiring leaders program" in Osceola to identify key leaders in schools, particularly black and Hispanic leaders. Established a mentoring program. "It takes that kind of individual attention."
Jones: It's important that diversity in the principals, administration and staffing reflect the community. Would reach out to churches and community organizations.
8. How will you further our efforts to improve student achievement? Please address the achievement gap and graduation rates. How would you develop a plan to turn around Pinellas County's lowest performing schools?
Cutter: Described what he did as principal of a high needs school. He said they added 150 minutes of literacy, which was a balancing act because it cut into time for other subjects.
Grego: When talking about the graduation rate, he said, "It has to become everything you do." He explained that means starting from a focus on early childhood education to targeting struggling students in middle school and beyond.
Jones: Try to get out of the mode of remediation. Students need to work on grade level, but with extra time and attention if they need it. Cited the AVID program as a good example. She said half the battle is getting students to believe in themselves.
9. As superintendent, what steps would you take to develop and maintain a strong leadership team relationship between yourself and the School Board Members?
Cutter: He said as a male kindergarten teacher at the beginning of his career, he was set up on blind dates all the time. "I probably went on 50 blind dates," he said. He said that helped him develop interpersonal skills, which he uses to this day. He said he wants to know how a person feels on key issues and how that will affect the relationship. Also, no surprises. "You will always know exactly what's going on."
Grego: Frequent meetings and communication, keep informed about emergencies and big issues. "I'll value this relationship more than any other relationship because as we go, they go."
Jones: "Communication, communication, communication." Job is to keep the board well-informed. "There's nothing more deadly than people being in fear and low morale."
10. Schools, principals and teachers have a high degree of accountability through standardized testing and school grades. How will you measure success in other areas of operations in the district?
Candidates didn't seem to get that this question was about operations, not standardized testing. Grego said "we've become so test-crazed and we need to get off that." Jones said everything should have an action plan with measurable objectives.
11. In the scenario that you have received important news or information about our district, how would you communicate the information?
Candidates also had trouble understanding this question.
Cutter: If it was positive news, he would "shout it." If negative, then he would verify it, make sure it's accurate and then discuss with the board. Because of the state's Sunshine Law, that would have to be one-on-one. After answering, he said he had no idea what the question was going for.
Grego: Would work directly with the communications office. Good news is always rolled out to board members. With bad news, he said he would set up a response, communicate with the board. But, in an emergency, he said the first priority has to be dealing with the problem, then communicating with the board.
Jones: Start with the school board and decide how to roll it out to the public.
12. How will you develop, communicate and implement a plan to uphold our district's vision and mission to all stakeholders to bring about high student achievement, while maintaining a positive morale?
Cutter: He said strategic plans should be a living document. Too often they sit on the shelf. He said there were 15 priorities in the district's current strategic plan. "When everything's important, nothing is important."
Grego: Inclusion of people and data-driving decision making.
Jones: Huge piece of this is the strategic plan.
13. Should you become our superintendent, how would you assess the efficiency and effectiveness of the district? How would you determine the strength of the district and the opportunities for continuous quality improvement?
Cutter: "How would I measure them and that? Right now, I'm not sure."
Grego: Operations need to be examined now more than ever. Consider energy savings. "Every dollar saved goes where? In the classroom."
Jones: Use the strategic plan again. A lot of listening and reaching out to constituents.
14. What is your experience advocating for or against legislative issues that impact school districts? What is your opinion of the Florida accountability system, including FCAT, Common Core, end of course exams and increased state-mandated graduation requirements? How do we follow the mandates while doing what is best for students?
Cutter: He said you can't fault lawmakers for coming up with something the public wants. Colorado has school grades, which are "useless," but parents "eat it up." Educators need to give lawmakers a "better choice." He said he was very critical of the Common Core. "I'm critical because it's not enough," he said.
Grego: "I think it has gone beyond where it needs to be." Grading of schools has gone too far. He believes in accountability and driving instruction. Of working at the state Department of Education, "I chose to work there. I didn't agree with everything." He said you have to participate in the process to be heard.
Jones: Called unfunded mandates "very frustrating." She said the 100 lowest performing schools was a "perfect example" of a new initiative rolled out late in the year. Believes the new method of calculating graduation rates, which leaves out special diplomas and GEDs, is misleading. She said the testing system has gotten "completely out of hand."
15. Is there anything that we have not asked that you would like to share with us? Do you have any questions for us?
Cutter: He has a few passions, one of them is early childhood education. Another is flexibility.
Grego: He's "very passionate" about Pinellas and has a long-standing relationship with the county. His parents, now deceased, used to live in Pinellas and his father wanted him to work for the school district. It's the only job he's applied for. "I've followed this district, I feel like I know this district." Described himself as a "servant leader."
Jones: She can make the transition to superintendent and has been invovled in all aspects of operations of the district. "I feel more than ready to serve as your superintendent."