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Musical chairs among Pasco's principals raises concerns for parents

LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County's high school principal list needs some serious revisions.

Within the past month, the leaders of Land O'Lakes, Mitchell and River Ridge high schools have been rotated into new positions. River Ridge now needs a new principal, leaving the potential for at least one more shift.

Already some parents and teachers have raised concerns about the moves.

If you're keeping track, Land O'Lakes High principal Monica Ilse took the top job at Anclote High, which opens in the fall. The administration then moved Ric Mellin from Mitchell to replace Ilse, and Jim Michaels from River Ridge to take Mellin's spot.

Some have told School Board members they don't like the instability the churn looks likely to cause students.

The principal sets the tone of a school, after all, providing leadership that filters through nearly every aspect of campus life. Morale, discipline and a variety of other aspects of the school depend on who's at the top, and change can radically alter a school for better or for worse.

"Recent research … says to us that leadership is second only to teacher classroom behavior in affecting student performance," said Dick Flanary, senior director for leadership at the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "Many authorities will say it takes five to seven years to fully institutionalize massive kinds of change in a school."

So why shuffle the deck, particularly when neither Mellin nor Michaels asked to move? And, doesn't it matter that Land O'Lakes would be getting its third principal in five years, and Mitchell High would be getting its third leader in four years?

School Board members said they have questions about the administration's decisions. But don't expect them to object — even if people are unhappy.

"Change is hard for anybody," board member Joanne Hurley said. "Change is not always bad."

Indeed, School Board member Kathryn Starkey said, often moving seasoned leaders into new roles can reinvigorate the administrator and the school.

"New principals bring in new ideas and new energy," Starkey said. "If these moves cause gains in student achievement, then I think it's a good thing."

Each change came because the administration felt the reassigned principals best fit the schools they will now run, said Jim Davis, assistant superintendent for high schools.

"You look at each individual school and determine its needs," Davis said.

Michaels was an assistant principal at Mitchell when it opened, so he knows its staff and community well, Davis said. Land O'Lakes needs an experienced principal more than an assistant moving up to his or her first top job, he said, so well-respected Mellin fit that bill.

Land O'Lakes' last two principals had top management experience: Ilse was principal of the James Irvin Education Center before coming to Land O'Lakes in 2006, and her predecessor, Ray Bonti, previously served as Gulf Middle School principal.

Leadership changes are inevitable, Davis said, because the school district is opening a new high school, and it wanted a seasoned principal there, too.

That meant at least one sitting principal would be moved, setting off the domino effect that's now occurring.

Davis said the goal is to pick the best leader for each school. What that means for River Ridge isn't settled.

The plan is to have an open application process for the principal's job, Davis said. But even that job comes with a specific skill set, as the person will need to have some experience working on a joint middle-high school campus, setting up career academies and learning communities. And the superintendent could simply appoint someone, too.

Don't expect River Ridge to have a single principal, though.

"When they opened River Ridge that was the case, and it was too much," Davis said.

School Board member Hurley noted that the schools will keep the rest of their leadership teams. Plus, Davis added, the district surveys the staffs to give the incoming principals information about traditions, culture, needs and desires as they join their new school.

"I think principals are sort of like preachers," Hurley said.

They're leaders who tend to a community and cast a long shadow over the way things run.

"But it's just a given that at some point in time, (they're) going to take another assignment," she said. "I don't see it as a problem."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

by the numbers

75 Numbers of principals in the Pasco County School District.

4.25 Average length of service, in terms of years, at current school.

51 Principals whose length of service is below the average.

9 Principals with 10 or more years of service at current school.

21 Tenure of Pasco Elementary principal Barbara Munz, the county's longest-serving principal still in office.

Source: Pasco County School Board

Musical chairs among Pasco's principals raises concerns for parents 03/01/09 [Last modified: Sunday, March 1, 2009 10:34pm]
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