The Pinellas County School Board gave superintendent Mike Grego a resounding vote of confidence Tuesday, extending his contract by five years and locking him in as the district's leader through 2020 after 21 months in the job.
Board members said the move guarantees stability for a district that is moving in the right direction. It comes just months before a board majority faces challengers in the November election.
The contract amendment ends a tumultuous few years of turnover in the Pinellas school system's top job. When Howard Hinesley retired in 2004, he was the nation's longest-serving urban district superintendent. But in the 10 years since then, Pinellas has had four chiefs.
Now, Grego is poised to serve for at least eight years, more than the national average for a superintendent's tenure.
"We are expecting some longevity out of the superintendent," said School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook. "That's what we're used to, that's what we were at in our past."
Grego's original three-year contract ran through 2015, and gave the board the option this month of extending the deal by a year. Instead, they more than doubled Grego's original commitment — because of fears within the district he planned to leave, said Cook.
Before coming to Pinellas, Grego worked as a special adviser to the Florida education commissioner. Cook, who negotiated the contract change, said some worried he might return to Tallahassee.
"This shows he isn't going anywhere," she said.
Grego said he was not being courted by other school systems or the state: "No, I wanted to be here."
When he came on, he told board members that he would know by this summer if he felt the school system was a good match for him. "And I think it's been a great 20 months and the time was well-spent."
Grego's salary is unaffected by the new deal. His total compensation comes to $315,081, which includes a $252,000 base salary, a $9,000 car allowance and insurance coverage.
Grego thanked the board, which approved the change unanimously.
"Stability is critical in high-performing districts," he said, adding that "I couldn't ask for a better place to work."
Though Grego took charge less than two years ago, board members said they liked where the district is heading. In that time, he has launched Summer Bridge, a six-week summer camp that effectively extends the school year, and Promise Time, an extended school day program for struggling students. For the first time, all Pinellas high schools earned an A or B from the state.
He also pushed to increase starting teacher pay to $40,000, giving Pinellas a hiring edge in the region.
"Having worked on the contract when we hired Dr. Grego, there's a culture of stability going on right now," said board member Robin Wikle, who plans to step down in the fall. "There's forward movement, there's a good spirit in the air."
However, the district also has faced persistent challenges. Pinellas has the lowest graduation rate for black students in the state, and never ranks high for its services for special-needs students. Enrollment continues to flatline, and neighboring Hillsborough County outperforms Pinellas in most academic measures.
School Board member Terry Krassner said that the contract extension did not mean Pinellas was getting complacent and that she didn't want to send the message to teachers and staff that work was anywhere near finished. "There's a lot of areas we're looking to improve upon; it's nonstop," Krassner said.
Before Grego's stint with the state, he was an assistant superintendent in Hillsborough and superintendent of Osceola County schools. In Pinellas, he replaced interim superintendent John Stewart, who took the helm after the School Board fired Julie Janssen.
Janssen served for a rocky three years. She followed Clayton Wilcox, a controversial figure who resigned after less than four years.
By contrast, Hillsborough has had the same leader — superintendent MaryEllen Elia — for nine school years.
The Florida Legislature has changed the rules since the board fired Janssen in 2011. No longer are districts required to pay out the rest of a superintendent's contract if they fire him or her without cause; instead, the checks stop after 20 weeks.
Cook said she knew it wasn't a risk to extend Grego's contract so early into his tenure. "We've already seen how quickly results are coming in," she said. "Our vision of 100 percent student success hadn't been moving fast enough, and now (with Grego) we're moving with urgency."
Cook briefly mentioned the need to address Grego's contract at the School Board's last workshop. The idea to extend the contract so significantly came up during her negotiations with Grego, she said.
She denied any strategy to lock him in before the November election, which could change the makeup of the seven-member board and thus its relationship with the superintendent.
Board members lauded Grego for bringing "unity" and "camaraderie" to the board, whose members had struggled through tensions in the past.
Lisa Gartner can be reached at email@example.com.