A weekend interview with Pinellas School Board member Lew Williams
Having served in the Pinellas County School District in various roles for more than three decades, Lewis Williams, 67, now finds himself on the other side of the dais after he was elected as a School Board member last year. The former social studies teacher, principal and area superintendent talked recently about his new role with correspondent Sylvia Lim.
How has the transition been for you and what are some of the biggest changes you face so far?
To be honest, the transition hasn’t been that great. From 1995 to 2005, I was an area superintendent and I attended all the School Board meetings. … The transition into doing the job as I saw it was not as big of a challenge. Actually, getting on the job, I found that there have been a number of distractions that have to be dealt with. That’s the biggest difference in what I have anticipated and experienced.
For instance, there were things that you just have to deal with that are related with the zoning, and the amount of time you have to spend on the zoning process. I didn’t anticipate that. Then there were concerns about communication within the system that I think that we are hopefully beginning to work on. Then there are issues that the superintendent has to deal with, and the media who always call asking your opinions, positions and happenings with the superintendent — that was not something I anticipated.
And those are the kinds of things I am thinking about, without adding the stuff that concerns that board and that we have to work on.
What’s the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge for me is probably not related to the distractions. When I got on the board, I wanted to be extremely visible. So I set aside Fridays to visit schools because I want to visit all the schools by the end of the school year.
I also had surgery and my knee was infected, so that limits my mobility. I was on a wheelchair, and then a walker and I am on my cane now. I am not as mobile as I would like to be. So it’s not the same challenge as the distractions; those I can deal with.
How is it working with other board members?
Good. I think we have a really good School Board as far as people who are really interested to do the best for our kids. During my years, from 1973 to now, I rank this one (School Board) as one of the better ones of dealing with issues and making provisions that are the best for kids, and that part I enjoy.
We’re in the budget season now. How’s the district dealing with potential cuts to schools?
You can just imagine, with the cuts from the previous year and $26 million to cut for the coming year, we have quite a challenge facing this. We started with the different committees looking at cuts from different areas from the district, and what we are trying to do is to stay away from a direct hit to the classroom as much as possible. But I am not 100 percent sure that they will not be affected. But, of course, that will be the last thing we will look at. I knew about the cuts from the last several years, but I didn’t realize that there would continue to be such deep cuts. As I have said, “Here we go again.”
What do you think the district is doing well and not doing well?
I think as a whole, looking at programs that are good for our kids and especially thinking in terms of the district and thinking in terms of the students who participate in Advanced Placement classes, I see a good effort on the part of our administrators to have the best classes for all of our secondary and middle schools. You have to make room for these type of courses … and to make room, you have to zone some of the kids out. In other words, there are three reasons for rezoning: program capacity, class size and overcrowding conditions.
For all schools to have these programs, you have to move some students out to put these programs in, and that causes concerns for parents. In terms of putting programs in to meet the needs of our nonstruggling students, we are doing a good job. I think we can do a better job, though, by rolling out programs for our most struggling students.
When I ask for information on the things we are doing, I do get answers but I haven’t gotten all the information yet. I am in the community all the time and I speak with different groups, so I would like to tell them about these things. I think we can do a better job rolling out programs for our most struggling students and in the area of communication.
How do you as a board member plan to fix some of these problems?
Well, one thing that personally — I am sure it will be a collective thing with the board — I want to evaluate the whole zoning process we have this past year. By evaluating it, we can come up with a better plan for next year’s zoning, better than we have experienced this year. We can do this through workshops. We have to have more workshops. At the workshops, obviously, the total board and I can see the problems coming in and can deal with them head on.