Interim Pinellas superintendent John Stewart said Friday he plans to scrutinize one of his predecessor's key projects: a teacher-training partnership that sparked a debate last summer.
Stewart said the costs of the venture with the University of Florida Lastinger Center for Learning are substantial, and he hasn't seen any evidence so far that it has rubbed off on student achievement. He referenced a clause in two contracts with Lastinger, totalling $1.6 million and approved by the School Board last month, that would allow the district to bail.
"Somebody's going to have to tell me that we're getting something for that (money) or we're going to exercise the out clause," he told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board.
Lastinger director Don Pemberton e-mailed a lengthy response.
"As for the most reliable data that could be used to evaluate this program," he wrote, "we said it earlier and we say it again: Ask the teachers — hundreds of them — if this program has value and should be continued."
Stewart's comments came in a wide-ranging, 45-minute interview in which he offered other frank takes on how the district spends money.
He said Pinellas needs to be just as careful with state and federal funding as it was with local sources. He said he welcomed a Pinellas Education Foundation plan to have business experts review district spending practices. And he said he was concerned about the fate of a voter-approved property tax increase, up for renewal next year, which brings in more than $30 million annually, most of it for teacher salaries.
"This is not a healthy tax climate," he said. "Anybody who isn't concerned isn't paying attention."
Stewart's strongest remarks were about the Lastinger project.
Former superintendent Julie Janssen cultivated the partnership to revamp the district's teacher training efforts. The center itself aggressively has hyped it as a national model.
The program is designed to help a handful of teachers in struggling schools earn their master's degrees and to help a much broader group of teachers learn an "inquiry-based approach" to tackling problems. Since 2007, when the partnership began, Pinellas has spent $3.7 million on it, with most of the money coming from state and federal grants. UF and the Helios Foundation have chipped in another $2.8 million.
Despite months of questions, the board voted unanimously in August to extend the contracts for a year.
Stewart, who began work Sept. 6, said he was "disturbed" when finance staff presented him with an accounting of the program's costs. He also said Pemberton recently called the district and asked if the two should meet.
"I said yes. And as quickly as possible," Stewart said. "Because I want to see what they're doing.
"I don't want to beat up an old phrase, but we want results, not activities," he continued. "If we got activities, those activities need to show something in the way of a result. What do we have in the way of increased student performance? What do we have in closing the gap?"