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In twist, Wilcox era as superintendent ends quietly

Clayton Wilcox became superintendent of Pinellas Schools in 2004, saying he intended to stay as long as a decade.

His tenure ended quietly Tuesday after less than four years.

The first superintendent chosen from outside the district since 1967, Wilcox, 52, will go down as a transitional figure who pushed for change but left before much of it came to pass.

Along the way he won fans for bringing in new ideas, while critics found fault with his policies and the style he used to advance them.

"It's a healthy thing for a district like Pinellas to have somebody from the outside look at everything with fresh eyes and question some of their time-honored ways of work," said Nancy Zambito, Wilcox's former deputy who became a superintendent in Tennessee.

"But it's very distressing for a lot of people. … It's difficult for people to wrap their arms around you, understandably."

Wilcox led the effort to return the district to a system of "close-to-home" schools after 36 years of desegregation. He fixed a bus system that had grown complacent and was overtaxed by the choice plan — problems that led to two student deaths.

He also sought to boost student performance, improve the climate on campuses and reduce the achievement gap between black and white students.

But change in those areas came in small doses and Wilcox became bogged down on other tasks, from lawsuits to budget problems.

He was pushing for even more change when he announced in April that he was leaving for a job with Scholastic Corp.

There were plans to create career programs known as Centers of Excellence; reform middle and high schools with new schedules and academic options; work on improving the graduation rate; and push more kids into rigorous classes.

"I likened it to being at Barnum & Bailey (circus) with the person who juggles all the plates on the sticks," said School Board member Jane Gallucci. "He felt confident that he could do all that at the same time."

Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas teachers union, had a different take.

"Just when he was at the point where he had gotten comfortable and able to do some stuff, he left," Moore complained. "It's very disappointing. It certainly doesn't make the case for outsiders (as superintendents)."

A casual and engaging public speaker, Wilcox brought a candid style to his job that many found refreshing. His ease before an audience was one of the traits that got him hired, as board members sought a superintendent who could communicate the district's mission.

But his tongue, by turns joking and sarcastic, also got him into trouble.

Said longtime administrator Jan Rouse, who left under Wilcox: "He was on many occasions unprofessional, and I think that created discomfort. I think it did nothing to engender trust."

He referred to longtime district employees as "dead wood" and "assorted hangers-on."

He told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board in 2005: "I think I have an awful lot of middle-class, white teachers who sometimes struggle with understanding the environments that a lot of kids come out of."

He didn't mean that pejoratively, he said later. "What I meant to say is there are cultural differences we've got to get over."

The same year, he released a list of 10 "brutal facts" about the district that included a graduation rate that had dipped below the state average and D grades for half of Pinellas' high schools.

Before Wilcox, "We were pretty full of ourselves," said Zambito, who had been in Pinellas 23 years. Every district has a list of brutal facts, she said.

"If you don't look at them, they're not going to get better."

Wilcox vowed to soften his style, publicly apologizing to teachers in 2006 for making them feel like they were "part of the problem."

The same year, in his self-evaluation, he said he had been through "personal and professional challenges" as a change agent but that Pinellas was where he wanted his two children to graduate.

Within 11 months, according to e-mails, he was talking with top officials at Scholastic Corp. about the possibility of a job. E-mail exchanges between Wilcox and Scholastic showed he had close ties with the company, and they created the appearance that his dealings were not always at arms-length. The district spends millions on Scholastic products.

Wilcox said that he had done nothing improper and that his interactions with Scholastic had been good for the district.

Throughout his tenure, he tussled with some board members over how much leeway he should have to run the district. He also became mired recently in a public spat with School Board Attorney Jim Robinson. But he leaves in good standing with a board majority that extended his contract to 2011.

Wilcox declined to be interviewed for this story, saying, "I think it's better that former superintendents are just that — former superintendents."

He arrived in 2004 after a two-year stint as superintendent in Baton Rouge, La., replacing Howard Hinesley, who had led the district for 14 years.

Early on, Wilcox directed district staffers to be more "customer friendly" to the public. He also set out to improve relations with black residents. But those efforts stalled after some black residents took legal action on two fronts, alleging the district had not done right by black students.

Wilcox curtailed his contacts with key black leaders, citing legal reasons. That was a mistake, said Watson Haynes, a St. Petersburg advocate for black students.

He added, however, that Wilcox "tried to do what was right."

He was the right superintendent in times that called for change, Haynes said. "Sometimes in life you have to be the sacrificial lamb."

Times staff writer Donna Winchester contributed to this report. Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at tobin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8923.

The good and the bad

Clayton Wilcox's legacy as superintendent is a mix of positives and negatives. Some examples:

Hits

• Fashioned a new student assignment plan.

• Reformed the bus system.

• Pushed employees to be more urgent and "customer friendly."

• Launched effort to beef up career education.

• Started to see modest gains in student performance.

Misses

• Invited criticism with ill-advised remarks.

• Sparred with other district leaders.

• Support among teachers wavered.

• Left with several initiatives still under way.

• Ties with company that hired him away raise questions about his independence.

In twist, Wilcox era as superintendent ends quietly 06/04/08 [Last modified: Friday, June 6, 2008 8:04pm]
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