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Interim Pinellas schools superintendent John Stewart brings stability, energy

Pinellas School Board member Linda Lerner was the lone dissenter last month when her six colleagues rushed to hire John Stewart as interim superintendent. But at a board meeting two weeks later, after the new guy listed several projects the district is finally getting off the ground, Lerner all but sighed in relief.

"I can relax a little bit now," she said.

"Hallelujah," chirped board chairwoman Carol Cook.

Across Florida's seventh-biggest school district, it's not an uncommon refrain these days: We can breathe again.

Stewart has been on the job only three weeks. He remains unknown to parents and teachers. All kinds of big, hairy challenges loom. All true. But it's also true that the 67-year-old former Polk County superintendent already has district insiders feeling confident that the drama and distractions of the Julie Janssen era really are a thing of the past.

Down home but direct, slim and bespectacled, Stewart is benefiting from obvious contrasts with the former superintendent, fired Aug. 23, and from the grace period extended to new leaders. But from the get-go, it has also been clear that Stewart looks comfortable running a district with 17,000 employees and 101,000 kids.

He has moved methodically to set new priorities (like focusing on the upcoming property tax referendum), meet key players in person (like Pinellas teachers union president Kim Black) and begin addressing long-festering board concerns (like poor communications with board members). He has also sent signals aimed at calming a tension-racked staff, and restoring confidence among parents and taxpayers.

"They're all dollars that are entrusted to us, and we have to be good stewards of those dollars," Stewart said in a district video. "If we aren't, then I think the taxpayers have the right to be upset with us."

"I guess anything I say is going to sound like a slam to the previous superintendent," said board member Robin Wikle. "But it's true: There's some real positive energy, there's excitement, there's anticipation about what the future holds."

"He just has great command," said board member Terry Krassner.

The process for finding a new, permanent superintendent will pick up in coming weeks. The board is holding a public hearing Tuesday to get input on the search process and the qualities people want in their next school leader.

By contract, Stewart is forbidden from applying. But nothing would bar the School Board from asking him to stay.

In the meantime, he's not flapping or quacking like a lame duck.

"My personality is, I'm not a caretaker," he told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board Friday. The board "asked me to help move the system forward."

Among his early decisions: Stewart decided not to shake up the communications office, which Janssen had started to do. He recommended a new "chief turnaround officer," who'll be tasked with the most troubled schools. He also put one high-profile Janssen initiative on hold (a research study involving black students and teacher effectiveness) and began to scrutinize another (a teacher training partnership with the University of Florida).

"I am a question asker," he told the board.

Stewart is doing little things, too, that may build goodwill down the road. Last week, he made his first public remarks outside the administration building, at a Pinellas Education Foundation luncheon. And in response to a question from the audience, he said the new state law overhauling the teaching profession has put fear into the district.

"We will remove as much fear as possible," he continued.

The next day, the district and the unions announced employees would not face mandatory unpaid leave days this year, or have to pay a greater share of health care costs. Stewart e-mailed a message to all workers. "Good news on bargaining," it read. It alluded to "our union partners."

His comments don't "appear to be rhetoric," said Black, the union chief.

In coming months, a fuller portrait of Stewart will emerge. But he's leaving clues. He can be disarming, calling himself a "country boy" and dropping phrases like "dadgum" and "beaucoup" (as in "beaucoup" numbers of kids needing guidance). He's deferential, especially when referring to the board ("the seven members who hired me"). He's quick to say, "Good job."

At Osceola Middle School on Wednesday, he thanked about 50 teachers and staff. A few days prior, they had accommodated 1,000 Largo Middle students who were shipped over after a broken water main left them with no running water.

"You made it happen with class," he told them.

He can be decisive, too.

When Lerner suggested at a workshop that the district take a closer look at the possibility of students evaluating teachers, Stewart turned to deputy superintendent Jim Madden: "Jim, put that down," he said. "We'll check into it," he told Lerner.

It remains to be seen how Stewart will approach some of the district's most pressing issues, whether it's a seventh consecutive year of budget cuts or academic gains that haven't been as robust as many other big districts in the state. Or how he will react when crises erupt.

For now, though, board members are giddy about what they're seeing — and not seeing.

In an e-mail to a reporter, Krassner referenced the St. Petersburg Times' education blog, the Gradebook. For months, it had been peppered with posts about district follies.

"Just wanted to tell you Gradebook is getting boring!" she wrote. "LOL I have to admit I love it!!"

Times staff writer Kameel Stanley contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Interim Pinellas schools superintendent John Stewart brings stability, energy 09/24/11 [Last modified: Sunday, September 25, 2011 12:48am]

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