ST. PETERSBURG — With less than a month until the primary election, Mayor Bill Foster unveiled an education initiative Friday that he said would put a new focus on student achievement in the city's schools.
The program, called St. Pete's Promise, is a partnership of the city, Pinellas County schools and the Pinellas Education Foundation. Three employees, one from each of the agencies, will be based at City Hall with a single task: to "work on nothing but academic achievement of schools and students in St. Petersburg," Foster said.
"They are sharing an office suite on my side of the building, three doors down from the mayor's office,'' he said. "So I can have access to school information, education foundation information, early childhood education information and all of these things and actually go out into the community."
Foster made the announcement Friday on the steps of City Hall, alongside superintendent Mike Grego and foundation chairman Jim Myers. He presented Myers with a check for more than $41,000 from city employees to help pay for the program.
Most of the education programs underpinning St. Pete's Promise have existed for years, including opportunities to intern and mentor, scholarships for students and awards for schools. Foster said what's new are the employees, a focus on vocational training, better tracking of scholarship recipients, and a stronger partnership between the city, school system and foundation.
"We haven't worked like this before," he said.
Foster's opponents in the primary contest, however, were skeptical about the timing of the announcement. Rick Kriseman derided it as a "political stunt."
"A rebranding of the status quo is not a 'new education initiative' — it's a political stunt," Kriseman said in a statement.
Kathleen Ford said the timing of the education initiative seemed "to suggest there's an election."
Kriseman has been endorsed by the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. No one from the teachers union attended Friday's news conference. President Kim Black couldn't be reached for comment Friday.
Foster defended the timing, saying the idea arose after one of the city's employees, Lori Matway, took a job in the school district in May. Matway had been focused on education as a city employee.
"When she left we had to decide, 'Do we scrap education or do we juice it up,' " he said.
Grego said he saw no problem with announcing St. Pete's Promise now and he hoped to see similar initiatives spread to other cities in Pinellas County.
Before the primary election on Aug. 27, he noted, is the start of school on Aug. 19.
"That's my calendar," he said.
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8846. Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.