It was one of Julie Janssen's priorities upon becoming Pinellas County's education chief: empower principals to have more control over their schools.
But these days the concept has become a source of division between Janssen and leaders of an influential nonprofit that pumps millions of dollars into the district annually.
"I think it is obvious that the school district is not interested in changing from a centralized managed system to one that gives real authority to principals," wrote Bob McIntyre, past president of the Pinellas Education Foundation, in a recent e-mail to Janssen and others.
The foundation, which has raised more than $95 million since 1986 to fund teacher grants and educational programs in Pinellas, has aggressively promoted for two years the move to put more power in schools' hands. And while Janssen has always said she believes in the concept, she says that reality sometimes flies in the face of execution.
"Many of our principals are under so many mandates by the state that they don't have a lot of freedom to implement" their ideas, Janssen said. "It's tough. And the principals are caught in the middle."
McIntyre resigned from the committee overseeing the effort to decentralize immediately following an Aug. 31 committee meeting attended by Janssen. The schools chief had been asked to bring a plan for the next phase of the initiative, he said. But when she arrived, he said, she had no such outline.
"The foundation has been very public and spent hundreds of man hours and thousands of dollars to promote (decentralized decision making)," McIntyre wrote in an e-mail after the meeting. "Our reputation is on the line for this program and after Tuesday's meeting it is obvious we are miles apart."
This isn't the first time the school district and the foundation have found themselves at odds over this matter.
In 2008, Pinellas Education Foundation leaders authored a white paper titled "A Case for Change in Pinellas Schools" that laid out the need for principals to have more authority, using as evidence a similar project in Okaloosa County.
When they asked School Board member Janet Clark to meet with them and endorse the position, she insisted on bringing an attorney. Foundation leaders balked. The meeting never took place.
Janssen said this time she believes business leaders simply don't understand that the business of public education is far different than that of a private corporation. Government money flows to the school district with strings attached and rules that must be followed.
"I don't go in and tell them how to run their business," she said.
She wants to implement as many of the ideals of local control as possible, but it needs to be done with care, she said: "For me, in a word, it's got to be right. If it doesn't work, it's my head."
In practice, Pinellas County has trained 57 principals on how to manage their schools more like a business. Thirty-two are paired with business partners to tackle decisions relating to school budgets that at one time were already made for them, including managing the money they take in through leasing out school facilities to community organizations. (Until now, the district has always taken a cut of that money.)
The highest-profile example of decentralization came this year at Clearwater High, when principal Keith Mastorides sought and received the financial flexibility to purchase Kindle e-readers for all students rather than funneling that money to traditional textbooks.
But in a survey of principals and business partners at 32 participating schools, several indicated ambivalence over how the program is going and how it is supposed to work.
"It seems the Ed Foundation wants us to move too fast," wrote one respondent. "Things have been centralized for a long time. It takes everyone to get on board."
"It is still very difficult to make changes happen," wrote another. "Too many people that have to approve things that (they) don't understand."
Decentralization, McIntyre says again and again, is a process, a change, not just principal training. "It begins at the central office," he says, and requires management to relinquish more control.
But with a wave of baby boomer retirements, the school district's principal force is increasingly young and inexperienced. To give total control to 140 principals, Janssen said, at the rate McIntyre and others might want, could be irresponsible.
"You have 140 subcontractors, you're giving them all the power, but you expect this to be 100 percent perfect?" she said. "How do you ensure that?"
Terry Boehm, president of the foundation, said for now the group is "in a holding pattern," awaiting the superintendent's plan.
"Decentralization is a major, major shift in management," he said. "It's going to take time. … At the end of the day, the foundation wants our kids to be successful. And if it's not decentralization, what is it?"
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or firstname.lastname@example.org.