When a big job opens up at the nation's 23rd largest school district, word spreads pretty fast.
Pinellas superintendent Clayton Wilcox announced his plans to resign late Thursday. By Friday, potential applicants were calling the Tallahassee office of Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.
The group lobbies for school districts and conducts superintendent searches, though it has not been contacted yet to help Pinellas.
"My phone's already been ringing," said Blanton, who recently conducted national superintendent searches for Lake and Osceola counties that drew 40-plus applicants each.
"When you do a national search, Florida's very attractive," he said. "(Pinellas) will attract very, very high quality candidates from out of state and in-state."
As the reality of Wilcox's departure for a private sector job sank in Friday, School Board members began to focus on the task of replacing him. Most of them said the district could not afford another elaborate process like the one that brought Wilcox to Pinellas in 2004.
They cited a looming budget crisis and several major initiatives, including a transition to a new "close-to-home" school system that is just getting untracked.
Wilcox, whose contract expires in 2011, has asked to be released from that commitment by June 1, when he plans to start work as a vice president for Scholastic Corp., the children's book publisher.
The board will meet next Friday at a workshop to discuss hiring a new superintendent, but how they will proceed is anyone's guess. Most board members said they are inclined to look across Florida and perhaps nationally for a replacement. However, a majority said they also wanted to consider potential candidates who already work for the district.
The three leading contenders in that category are deputy superintendents Julie Janssen and Harry Brown, and Leon Hobbs, an associate superintendent. Each oversees a large piece of the district and all three said Friday they are interested in the job.
Janssen is the district's chief academic officer dealing mostly with curriculum. Brown handles operations issues such as a proposed change in the middle school schedule. Hobbs oversees a sprawling enterprise known as "Facilities and Operations," which includes the district's busing, food service, construction, real estate and warehouse departments.
"I don't think we have the time to go outside. I think we have good people inside," said Mary Brown, one of two board members ready to pick a superintendent from inside the district without making an interim appointment.
"I certainly am not in favor of a national search," said board member Linda Lerner. "I'm ready for an in-district person, and I think we have the people there to choose from."
The remaining five board members, to varying degrees, said Friday they were willing to consider inside candidates but expressed a desire to look elsewhere.
"They're all excellent in their own way," board member Peggy O'Shea said, referring to Janssen, Brown and Hobbs. "They all bring a lot to the table."
But she added: "It's good to see all your options and who's available."
Board members Carol Cook and Janet Clark expressed doubts about choosing from within.
"I don't know if we have somebody inside the district who's qualified enough to handle what's in front of us," said Cook, who noted that Janssen and Brown were high school principals only two years ago.
"I would like to see what's out there," said Clark. "I don't know that the Pinellas way is the best way."
Said board chairperson Nancy Bostock: "I think we have to look at how to get the best possible applicants in the fastest time frame."
Board member Jane Gallucci said she was leaning toward a process that considered applicants within Florida.
Blanton, the Florida School Boards executive, said a national search could be conducted in about three months.
"You could have somebody in there by the time school starts," he said.
Janssen said she's ready to move up from the No. 2 spot. It's been on her mind since Wilcox promoted her in 2006, she said.
"In my short time being in this job, I haven't forgotten what it's like in the schools," she said. "I have great empathy for the teachers and those who are in front of the kids."
She added: "There are times when you say, 'This is really tough.' But I love what I do. I have a vested interest in Pinellas County. This is part of my heart and soul."
Hobbs is the only one of the three internal candidates who has been a superintendent before. He led districts in Dothan, Ala., and Osceola County and says he has experience juggling multiple tasks.
Plus, he said, "I'm not unfamiliar with budget cutting."
In 2000, he was named Alabama's superintendent of the year.
With so many balls in the air, Harry Brown said he would urge the board to consider hiring from within even if he weren't being considered.
"Anybody coming into the job will have a steep learning curve," he said. "But anyone coming in from outside the district will have an even steeper one."
Brown said the district is in a better position for a transition now than it was four years ago.
"There was no succession plan then," he said. "When Dr. Wilcox offered me this job two years ago he said, 'The next time they look for a superintendent, they shouldn't have to look outside the district.' But neither of us anticipated it would be only two years later that he would be leaving."
Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8923. Donna Winchester can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8413.