Since the Pinellas Education Foundation was started by a local business leader 26 years ago, it has been a generous partner to public schools, pushing $110 million toward local students, teachers and classrooms.
But what happens when a generous partner makes uncomfortable demands?
In the last year — and especially in the last four months — the Pinellas Education Foundation has aggressively sought to challenge school district leaders' assumptions about everything from what parents think of the district to how they run air conditioning in classrooms.
• Under the leadership of board chairman Craig Sher, the foundation assembled 32 high-powered business and public sector leaders to audit the district's finances in the areas of construction, health insurance, maintenance, energy purchasing and transportation, offering a "Savings for Classrooms" report that includes dozens of recommendations it says will save millions of dollars.
• It paired with the Pinellas County Council of PTAs to survey parents about hot-button issues like early-release Wednesdays, while also offering the association use of its address and an intern to better organize the PTA's message and outreach.
• It called for a national superintendent search and even offered to help pay for an executive search firm. Then, the foundation irritated some School Board members last week when it wanted to meet privately with the man the board hired to run the search.
Mary Chance, president of the Consortium of Florida Education Foundations, which counts 58 county education foundations as members, said the work the Pinellas foundation is doing as what she called a "critical friend" to the district is generating conversation around the state and nation.
"Pinellas is certainly in a league of their own in terms of some of the scope of their work," Chance said.
For the most part, Pinellas school leaders have publicly welcomed the foundation's input.
"I never mind other sets of eyes and ears on things," board member Terry Krassner said, "especially if it's done in a way to help us be stronger. As long as they don't view us as an enemy and they know we're partners."
But for a moment last week, tension over the foundation's involvement made some wonder.
School Board members caught wind that the group's leaders had arranged a private meeting with Wayne Blanton, the man they hired to help find a new superintendent.
"Is the foundation paying for it?" board member Janet Clark asked, launching a conversation that ended later only when board chairwoman Robin Wikle asked the foundation to consider meeting in a more public forum: at a School Board workshop.
"We weren't trying to cause any trouble or anything," Sher said Monday, after agreeing to Wikle's request. "We reconsidered our position."
It's not that the relationship between the school district and the foundation hasn't had flare-ups before.
In 2008, the foundation issued a "white paper" that pointed to the district's unimpressive graduation rate and made the case for giving more power to principals. Two years later, former foundation president Bob McIntyre sent a scathing letter to former superintendent Julie Janssen and others questioning her administration's commitment to that effort.
And last May, Sher stirred up some hard feelings when the foundation sent a consultant to try to help the district in its negotiations with employee unions. The district's ability to negotiate with the union continues to be a point of concern for Sher, who again shared his worries about the School Board's negotiating savvy with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board earlier this month.
Still, Sher says the foundation's recent strategy is merely an effort to get 101,000 students at the forefront of the board's decisions. He rejects most criticism as the voice a vocal minority who enjoys commenting on news stories online.
"Where's the downside?" Sher said of what the foundation is doing. "We have an agenda for the kids. That's all we have. There's nothing evil or suspicious about that."
The foundation is led by a who's who of local business and community leaders. (Times director of corporate giving Nancy Waclawek serves on its board of directors.)
Linda Kearchner, a board member for the Pinellas County Council of PTAs, said her group embraced the chance to partner more aggressively with the foundation on what they've titled the "P4PS" effort in part because it brings resources to amplify the collective voices of parents. "They're certainly well-connected in the community and can bring the resources together to make it happen," she said.
Chance said not every education foundation could get away with tackling the sorts of issues the Pinellas foundation has embraced. But the foundation has a long history of involved leadership and support to bolster its relationship with school leaders, she said.
"I think the time has to be right and the relationships have to be solid and the trust has to be at a really high level," Chance said, "or it's all going to be a waste of time and counterproductive to what you want."
While board members like Clark have publicly criticized the foundation in the past for overstepping its bounds, Sher said Monday he doesn't see a way it could.
"All we do," he said, "is advocate and communicate."
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or [email protected]