LARGO — As the Pinellas County School Board embarked on a formal search for a new schools chief Thursday, a coalition of business leaders urged board members to seek high-caliber executives from a national field.
"We know it costs more money to do a national search and use a national search firm, but we feel it is money well spent," said Craig Sher, chairman of the Pinellas Education Foundation, a business-led nonprofit that raises money to benefit local schools.
Sher's comments came at the beginning of a two-hour presentation during which business leaders laid out numerous cost-cutting measures they say could save the district millions of dollars in the areas of construction, energy, health insurance, maintenance, purchasing and transportation.
Sher encouraged board members to adopt the wide-ranging recommendations with haste — and not to wait until December, when they plan for a new superintendent to take the reins.
"Act now," he said.
Board members listened, asked a few questions, then drove a few miles away to district headquarters to meet with Florida School Boards Association executive director Wayne Blanton, whom they've hired to guide them through their search for a new superintendent. They expect the search to cost up to $20,000.
While the board members have been clear with Blanton that they want their search to be national in scope, Sher said his group would rather have had the district hire a national headhunting firm — even going so far as to offer to pay part of the bill for a more expensive search.
"I guarantee you if any private or public company board in Pinellas County with $1.3 billion in revenue was looking for a new leader, they would not be serving their shareholders well if they did not scour the country for the best," Sher said.
School Board members, meanwhile, outlined a few parameters.
If the plan is approved by the seven-member School Board on April 24, the salary for overseeing the 102,000-student district will be advertised as $225,000 to $275,000. Former superintendent Julie Janssen's salary was $203,000 at the time she was terminated in September. John Stewart, who was hired to replace her on an interim basis, is drawing $12,000 a month, or $144,000 annually.
Board members also agreed to write job qualifications that would not close the door to non-traditional candidates such as business CEOs. They suggested requiring that candidates have at least 10 years of administrative experience in districts of at least 25,000 students or in comparatively-sized government or business organizations — language the board also intends to vote on during its meeting later this month.
Chairwoman Robin Wikle and new board member Glenton Gilzean, Jr. were particularly vocal about their interest in attracting noneducators. Wikle said she'd like to see the board advertise the job in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
Yet Blanton, who says he's led about 75 superintendent searches over the past 30 years, warned that it's harder than it sounds to attract such top-notch business talent, both because of the salary and because of what he called "the fishbowl" aspect of leading a school district beholden to Florida's Sunshine Laws, which govern open meetings and open records.
"We just don't get a lot of businesspeople," Blanton said. "They're not willing to operate within the parameters in which you have to operate, i.e. terminating someone in a public meeting — they don't do that, folks."
He named John Fryer, a retired Air Force major general, as "the last successful noneducator" to lead a Florida school district. Fryer headed the 125,000-student Duval County school system from 1998 to 2005. By coincidence, similarly sized Duval is also beginning the search for a new superintendent by December and has secured a national consultant to help.
Board members hope to have all applications in hand by 5 p.m. July 2, to narrow that list to five by July 17 and to hold in-person interviews in September.
The Education Foundation's Sher said Thursday afternoon that he was pleased to hear that the board is taking steps to make the superintendent's position more attractive to those without the traditional educational pedigree. He wishes the board would not put an upper limit on the salary.
"An extra few thousand dollars isn't going to make a difference if you find the right candidate," he said, referring back to the 37-page cost-savings report his group gave to board members earlier in the day.
Thirty-two business and government leaders from outside the school district met in more than 40 meetings in the past year and contributed to the creation of the Education Foundation document called "Savings for Classrooms," which details dozens of ways they believe the district is spending too much.
If leaders could cut expenses, Sher said, they would have more to send to classrooms and more to pay a superintendent. The group also presented its report to the Tampa Bay Times editorial board Thursday.
Ideas included limiting the use of air conditioning on school buses, making major purchases in consortium with other large agencies, reducing nonmandated bus transportation by $2 million within four years, switching out fluorescent light bulbs in 40 schools, changing building temperature settings by three degrees, opening on-site health clinics and adopting a self-funded medical insurance plan.
Board members thanked the leaders for their ideas, though some seemed more outwardly receptive than others. Generally, most said they needed more time to digest the suggestions and will do so in a future workshop.
"Many of these solutions will be deemed unpopular by some. … Sometimes the best solutions are when everybody is a little unhappy," Sher said.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or [email protected]