Pinellas interim school superintendent John Stewart preaches fiscal discipline

Pinellas interim superintendent John Stewart made headlines last month when he slashed a teacher training venture with the University of Florida. But what he did next sent an even bigger message. He told the School Board the district had not received itemized invoices from UF, and he wasn't going to pay until he saw them.

No documentation. No dough.

"I'm a real bulldog when it comes to latching onto something like that," Stewart told the board.

The new guy's politely baring his teeth a lot.

Stewart, 68, has very publicly put district finances front and center since the board hired him to replace fired superintendent Julie Janssen three months go.

He stressed good stewardship of taxpayer money in his first meeting with the board, in his first video for district employees and in his first public appearance. He welcomed a proposal by the pro-business Pinellas Education Foundation to take a close look at district spending practices. And he has put a growing list of policies and programs, big and small, under a fiscal microscope.

• $10 million a year to pay retiring employees for unused sick leave? Stewart said limits are needed.

• $4 million a year for days that teachers and others work outside their contract? Stewart said those days can be reduced.

• A $698,000 contract for a problematic science curriculum? Stewart pulled the plug two weeks ago and said the district would better vet projects in the future.

Stewart also offered a head-on response to widespread perceptions that district administration in Pinellas is as lardy as they come. Let's hire an outside party for a serious study, he said, and find out once and for all.

"I guess they could call me a tightwad. That would be all right," Stewart said in an interview. "I want to be known as someone who wants the dollars spent on the things that get the most gains for the students."

Board members like Stewart's penny pinching. It remains to be seen how much everyone else does.

Some employees, for example, didn't like Stewart's call for more stringent caps on sick leave payouts, which could dent what has become something of a retirement supplement.

Given the school funding climate in Florida, "We have to be more than fiscally responsible, so I applaud his efforts in looking at every issue," said Kim Black, president of the Pinellas teachers union. "Some of the programs (in Pinellas) are untested and unfounded, and some have high price tags."

Black was among those who questioned the UF partnership, which has cost Pinellas $3.7 million since 2007.

Then again, she added, there has to be a "fine balance."

"You get to a point where you cut certain areas too deep, and you risk a dejected workforce," she said. "I just think you have to be careful."

These have not been easy financial times for the district.

The board has cut $168 million in the past six years; more cuts are likely next year. Meanwhile, a cloud of uncertainty hovers over next year's renewal vote for the property tax referendum.

The half-mill increase brings in more than $30 million a year, 80 percent of that for teacher pay. Without it, salaries would drop by $3,000. Art, music and technology programs would be hard hit, too.

Voters okayed the referendum by large margins in 2004 and 2008. But with the economy still in a funk, voters aren't in a good mood. Some also fear the tumult of the Janssen era undermined confidence in local schools.

With that backdrop, it's no coincidence district leaders are talking more conspicuously about running a tighter ship.

"The public is not going to be willing to part with their hard-earned tax dollars if we're not spendthrifts," said board member Janet Clark. Constantly scrutinizing finances "is what we have to do. The public is taking notice."

Stewart said he doesn't wear his fiscal conservatism on his sleeve as a gimmick.

"That's a part of who he is," agreed board member Robin Wikle.

"Dr. Stewart came in … having been a superintendent in difficult financial times," Wikle added, referring to his stint as Polk County superintendent from 1983 to 1996. "Any time you have someone with that experience, it's helpful."

Despite other distractions, Janssen led the district through the worst of the budget cuts. And there is evidence that it became leaner under her watch and is no longer among the most bloated of big districts.

State figures released last spring show Pinellas is the fourth or fifth leanest district, among the 12 biggest, depending on how administration is defined.

Stewart still wants a closer look.

He plans to spend $20,000 for an analysis of the district's organization and management to see if the structure is as efficient as it should be. The study will be done by the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. Results are expected next spring.

In the meantime, board members expect Stewart to keep his ax sharp.

"What can I say?" Clark said. "Money is the biggest issue we have in the district, or the lack thereof."

Times staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Pinellas interim school superintendent John Stewart preaches fiscal discipline 11/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 25, 2011 10:51pm]

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