The Pinellas school system is still reeling from a budget crisis. Its graduation rate is stuck at 67 percent, and a proposal to decentralize the district is getting lots of attention. All are topics in this summer's campaign for three School Board races. Today we profile the candidates for the District 1 at-large seat.
Janet R. Clark
"I was never the rubber stamp type," says Clark, 54, a former middle school teacher and the District 1 incumbent. "I'm cynical and I'm skeptical and I just don't believe anyone."
Clark contends the board needs her wary eye. And with at least two new board members and a new superintendent joining the district's leadership team this fall, it will need her experience as well, she says.
Clark has been pushing fellow board members for three years to approach the budget differently.
She wants the board to hire an independent auditor. She also wants the district to build its budget from the bottom up, requiring departments to justify everything they spend instead of building on the allotments they've always received.
"It's not that I don't trust our financial staff," Clark says, "but I think they've done things the same way for a long time."
As one of seven board members, Clark has been unable to convince her colleagues to go along with some of her ideas. But she says you start by "planting a seed," and some board members are starting to agree with her.
She says she supports many of the concepts in a recent proposal by the Pinellas Education Foundation to decentralize the district and allow principals, teachers and parents to run schools. But she's concerned about how it would be implemented.
She welcomes a public discussion of the issue as a way to push change. "What we're doing hasn't been working," she says.
Jennifer S. Crockett
Crockett, 35, is making her second run for the School Board. A mother of two children in elementary school and one in middle school, she says the board needs the perspective of a parent in the system.
Crockett says she's attended 90 percent of the board's meetings since 2006, when she lost to board member Mary Brown.
Like Clark, she supports a discussion on the proposal to decentralize the system, but says there are too many unknowns to move ahead immediately.
Regarding the budget, she says the district needs to take a "hard look" at every position to see which jobs are "really necessary."
The answer to the district's student achievement problems is to start engaging kids as early as elementary school with more mentoring, more guidance and deeper relationships with the adults who staff schools, she says.
High school students need more academic options and the district needs to do a better job of pointing middle school students to high school programs.
Crockett says she was shocked during a recent tour of an advanced language arts class at a middle school. Students were listening to an audio tape of a book. Kids at that level should be reading on their own, and teachers should be leading classroom discussions, she said.
"They're capable of so much more."
Loden, 58, retired from the Pinellas school system last summer after 35 years. He spent the last 10 years as an assistant principal at Pinellas Park High, coordinating its criminal justice magnet program.
He is a strong supporter of the Pinellas Education Foundation's proposal to decentralize the system. Proponents of "school-based management" say putting more control in the hands of principals, teachers and parents improves efficiency and leads to more creative decisions.
"I think that's where the real change is going to take place," Loden said. "Our system is so big … I think the principals and the staff have an insight into what the kids need."
To attack Pinellas' stagnant graduation rate and the lingering achievement gap between white and minority students, Loden proposes more of what the district has been preaching in recent years — making school more relevant to students' lives.
"I think we have to work harder to find areas in our curriculum that will connect those students with the real world," he said.
He noted that Pinellas Park's criminal justice magnet grew from 47 students to 450.
Loden said the current board listens well and is accessible but has failed to set the district on a clear path.
If elected, he said he would stick to setting policy. "I would not see my role as micro-managing."
Smith, 47, is president and founder of Valid Results Inc., a company that provides statistics and data analysis primarily to medical device companies. Two of his children attend Pasadena Fundamental Elementary School.
"I think we have really overcomplicated what it is the public school system is intended to do," he says.
The district, he says, needs to remove barriers to education with approaches that are more tactical and customized.
He says it needs to do a better job of removing disruptive and disengaged students from schools so that 1.) the district can intervene with programs at other schools that better suit their needs and 2.) they don't deter other kids from getting an education.
The district also needs to make a much stronger effort to connect with disengaged parents and compensate with student mentoring when they don't respond.
"In our attempts to become equal, we've really become accommodating," Smith says. "And by accommodating, we really just enable kids to fail."
Regarding the budget, he says, people lose perspective. The $43-million in cuts this year represent less than 3 percent of the district's $1.6-billion budget. "There's 3 to 5 percent waste in any budget of that size," he says.
He recently sent the Pinellas Education Foundation a three-page analysis of its school-based management proposal, saying it had "tremendous potential" but that it "overpromises" results.
"To just jump in wholeheartedly," he says, "I don't think the school district is prepared to do it right now."