Old, new challenges will face new School Board with two new faces

This week's election turns a page for the Pinellas County school system, ending months of uncertainty that kept the district's top leaders from setting a sure course for the future.

When Clayton Wilcox announced his resignation as superintendent in April, School Board members spent the next five months pouring much of their energy into replacing him. They also moved tentatively on long-term decisions, knowing the fall elections could significantly change the board's makeup.

"I think it was difficult to go forward with definitive goals as a leadership team," said veteran board member Linda Lerner.

Officials say that will change Nov. 18 after the swearing in of re-elected board member Janet Clark and two newcomers: Nina Hayden, a Pinellas public defense lawyer, and Robin Wikle, the owner of a Palm Harbor real estate business. The same day, superintendent Julie Janssen will start her second month on the job.

With everyone in place, district leaders can bring several pressing problems into focus. But solving them will require painful choices.

Among the issues:

• Budget problems. After cutting costs by $59-million over the last two years, Pinellas soon faces a midyear cut of up to $20-million more because of state shortfalls. Cuts totaling $36-million may be in store for 2009-10.

• School buses. With the busing budget at $50-million, the district is studying ways to streamline the system. Early ideas include closing schools, establishing hubs and reducing bus service to students who stayed in their old "choice" schools instead of enrolling in their new "close to home" schools.

• Start times. The board wants to make the 7:05 a.m. high school start time later and the 9:38 a.m. middle school start time earlier.

• A proposal to give principals, teachers and parents more control over individual schools, a concept known as "site-based management." Proponents say it could be good for the budget and even better for classrooms but warn it must be done right.

• Morale. The district is trying to negotiate a new contract with teachers, but the lack of raises and disagreements over working conditions make for a tense climate.

• Middle and high school reform. The district's attempt at middle school reform — adding a period to the day — fell flat with many teachers. A high school schedule change is on the way.

"It's not easy stuff, and it's going to take us working as a team to focus on it," board member Mary Brown said. "We have a full plate."

Janssen said the district received news this week that the state's budget crisis will be deeper and longer than many thought. She said she's looking for ways to get other agencies to deliver services the district no longer can afford to provide.

Board member Peggy O'Shea said she hopes the new board can debate issues without attacking each other's ideas.

"I just want to see us all working together," she said, referring to the board's past squabbles. "We have to reinvent the way we do things."

Hayden and Wikle will bring different backgrounds to a board that has been criticized for having too many former teachers.

Hayden defends juvenile offenders that she says could be better served by smarter school discipline policies. Wikle is a business person, community volunteer and onetime teacher who says she won't be a party to bickering on the board.

Another change: For the first time, the board has two African- American members.

Hayden, who is black, says her focus will be on all children, no matter their race. "I never really looked at race as an issue in my campaign at all," she said.

Brown, who in 2002 became the first African-American elected to the board, said Hayden, 34, may bring a black person's perspective to the board. But she added it would be decidedly different from hers.

"I come from a different experience," said Brown, 73. "And I think it's good that Nina and I are in different generations … I respect that because I like young ideas."

One thing about the board will not change: it will again be all female, a fact that in recent years has been fodder for jokes and the occasional serious critic.

Gender shouldn't be an issue, Wikle said. "When any group of passionate people get together, whether women or men, they can move mountains and make things happen."

With so many problems to tackle, Wikle said, there's no way the board will please everyone.

"I'm really popular today," she said. "It goes downhill after that."

Old, new challenges will face new School Board with two new faces 11/07/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 10, 2008 8:48pm]

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