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John Stewart credited with bringing calm to Pinellas County schools

When board members chose John Stewart to lead Pinellas County schools a year ago, they hoped he would calm a school system stricken by budget cuts, new state mandates and the frequent missteps of its former superintendent.

Stewart, 68, proved to be that balm — and more, say board members and community leaders.

In large part because of his work, they say new superintendent Mike Grego will inherit a 101,000-student school system that is more efficient and better prepared to tackle major problems, such as the achievement gap and the graduation rate.

Grego starts Wednesday, the day after Stewart steps down.

Stewart "brought a leadership quality at a time when we were looking for a sense of calmness," said board chairwoman Robin Wikle. "In the end, he will be leaving the district healthier and with a sense of hope."

Board members hired Stewart as interim superintendent after firing superintendent Julie Janssen in August 2011. He was a seasoned leader, with more than 40 years of experience in education, including as a teacher, superintendent and state education leader. He also knew Pinellas County, having served as the district's deputy superintendent from 2000 to 2003.

Not long into the job, Stewart commissioned a sweeping — and ultimately unflattering — audit that said the district had too many administrators, declining enrollment, poor communications and inaccurate job descriptions.

Janssen often was criticized by board members for proposing changes without vetting them first, leading to surprises and quick reversals. So an interim leader might have reason to think tackling problems could have been even more perilous.

Stewart managed to pursue major changes with little public drama.

He oversaw a reorganization of district leadership. He started staffers on the tedious process of rewriting job descriptions; the audit had found that many appeared to be written with a particular person in mind. He is credited with improving communications, both within the school system and with the public. He championed cost-saving strategies, including some from the Pinellas Education Foundation, a business-led nonprofit that has been critical of the district.

He pushed for changes to the district's health insurance plan to free up funds for a small raise for teachers. He also championed ending early release Wednesday. The practice, instituted to give teachers planning time, deeply annoyed some parents who had trouble arranging for child care.

But Stewart's agenda hasn't always been popular.

The first health insurance proposal, which would have dramatically increased out-of-pocket costs for employees, was fought by the unions. Some union leaders accused the district's negotiating team of misleading board members.

Stewart has defended a restructuring of the communications department that resulted in an overall savings but higher salaries for some employees. And a cost-saving measure that forced teachers to get rid of their classroom printers — sending printing jobs to a central location — struck many as micromanaging and degrading.

Kim Black, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said Stewart came into a tough position, knowing that his tenure was temporary.

"He was willing to listen and talk to us, and that isn't the case in some counties," Black said.

Terry Boehm, president of the foundation, said Stewart could have found the nonprofit nosy, pushy even. After all, it detailed cost-cutting measures, irritated a few board members with public surveys it conducted with the Pinellas County Council of PTAs and advocated for a new superintendent search when it decreed the first one too limited.

Stewart never bristled, even if he didn't pursue every suggestion, said Boehm, who called him "a role model for any superintendent."

Grego, who has been meeting with Stewart to ease the transition, said Stewart's leadership has put the district on a path to improvement.

Stewart's fans say his success comes, in part, from his personality. He is often described as a gentleman. He loves to talk about his grandchildren, his Scottish heritage and the University of Florida Gators, though not necessarily in that order.

Ask him how he's doing and his response never varies: "I can't remember being better. How 'bout yourself?"

Steve Swartzel, the district's director of governmental services, said he has known Stewart as a professional since early in their careers. This is the first time that Swartzel worked for him. "He's been the same guy I met 30 years ago and that's hard to say about a lot of people," he said.

Stewart, who will attend his last board meeting Tuesday, has asked board members and Grego not to make a fuss.

"I prefer to go quietly away," he said. He said he plans to settle back into his retirement and, as a season ticket holder, catch some Gator games.

With his plans for a quiet departure, Stewart might cause a little drama after all. Grego said everyone wants to respect his wishes, but it's hard to let him sneak out of town.

"Education is better off for John Stewart being in it," Grego said. "I think that's all any of us could ever want at the end of our careers."

Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com, (727) 893-8846 or on Twitter @Fitz_ly.

John Stewart credited with bringing calm to Pinellas County schools 09/22/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 22, 2012 10:02pm]
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