Frustrated by stalled student performance, a foundation led by some of Pinellas County's most influential business leaders is aggressively pushing a major change in the way public schools are organized and funded.
The Pinellas Education Foundation wants the district to adopt a new system that puts principals in control of their schools and relieves district headquarters of the power to impose its will across the system.
The group makes its case in a strongly worded "white paper" titled A Case for Change in Pinellas Schools. It also is taking an audacious approach that differs from the collaborative style of years past.
Foundation leaders are briefing candidates running for three open School Board seats and meeting individually with sitting board members. They want both groups, and the public, to sign a statement supporting the proposal — before the board has had a chance to discuss it.
"It may appear that we got out a 2 by 4, but it isn't our goal in life to demean the School Board," said Terry Boehm, president of the foundation. "We just want them to pay attention. We don't need any more excuses."
Boehm added: "We want to bring this to the attention of the community, which will then bring pressure to bear on the School Board members. We elect them to take care of something that ought to be taken care of better than it has been."
The group is primarily focused on Pinellas' graduation rate, which has hovered in the 67 to 70 percent range for years — always under the state average and middle-of-the-pack among large Florida districts. The numbers show that thousands of kids drop off the system's radar between their freshman year and graduation.
If approved, the shift to what is known as "school-based management" would be a landmark moment for Pinellas schools, on par with the change to "close-to-home" schools this year.
It would require training principals in the skills they would need to manage budgets that range from $2-million for elementary schools to about $10-million for high schools. Principals would become chief operating officers; school advisory councils would act much like boards of directors.
The theory is that people close to schools make better, more creative decisions about how to teach students.
The foundation says it's a business model that has raised student performance in other districts, notably Okaloosa County in the Panhandle. Members also say it's the kind of fundamental change that would shake the system out of what they describe as a long-running funk.
The district's top administrator likes the idea, having worked with the foundation for months on the proposal. Interim superintendent Julie Janssen said she plans to submit a plan to the School Board this fall and start training principals in January.
The shift would be complete by the 2010-11 school year, Janssen said. "We have to do something different because we are not getting anywhere."
Asked why she wouldn't wait until a new School Board and superintendent are in place this fall, she said it wasn't fair to Pinellas students to put things on hold for four months.
The problem is that some School Board members are only finding out about the white paper and Janssen's plans this week. In one instance, a board member first heard about the white paper while at lunch with a School Board candidate.
Also, the foundation's forceful approach has exposed a rift between business leaders and educators.
"There's nothing wrong with having a conversation. It can be a real positive thing. But the way they've gone about it is heavy-handed," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas teachers union. "We don't go into their business and mess with them. They shouldn't come into our business and mess with us."
But Boehm said the foundation has poured $90-million into projects that benefit the public school system, including scholarships, Enterprise Village and Finance Park. "I think we've paid our dues," he said. "We should at least have some say in this."
The group's Advisory Council includes Paul C. Tash, chairman, CEO and editor of the St. Petersburg Times. Its board includes Nancy Waclawek, the Times' director of corporate giving.
District and foundation leaders plan to meet in early July.
"We all need to take a deep breath and we all need to sit back and we all need to do what's best for kids," said board member Jane Gallucci, who this week signed a statement of support "to get the dialogue going."
The white paper points to Okaloosa County as a shining example of what can be done with school-based management.
It references Okaloosa's rise from 27th to first in an annual ranking based on the percentage of A-rated schools a district has. Pinellas is ranked 32nd.
But the two counties have different demographic makeups, which can affect student performance. Pinellas' enrollment is twice the size of Okaloosa's. Pinellas also has a greater percentage of disabled and low-income students.
And, while the paper asserts that "extensive research" shows the new system could raise student achievement, a report by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory says researchers have found no direct link between school-based management and student performance.
State Sen. Don Gaetz, who authored Okaloosa's success as that district's superintendent from 1999 to 2006, says he witnessed real success.
"You decide at the school: Do we want an art teacher instead of another PE teacher? Do we want to drop the assistant principal and pick up an extra music teacher? What instructional methods are we going to use and what will we have to purchase?"
The answers were not at district headquarters or in Tallahassee, he said.
"Our parents and our teachers and our principals … dug deep inside themselves and created performance plans, and their performance plans created excellent results."
In Pinellas, some still need convincing.
"I do support the main ideas," said board member Linda Lerner. "It's the details I want to get right."
Said board member Carol Cook: "You just can't have schools going off and doing whatever they want."