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Pinellas principals fret over CEOs model

For more than a decade, Sue Boyd has stood at the helm of a St. Petersburg elementary school overseeing teachers, monitoring student achievement and managing a modest budget.

But under a new plan being pushed by local business leaders, Boyd could find herself in a role more akin to a CEO than an educator.

The model would give more control to principals, school staff and parents, meaning Boyd and other Pinellas County administrators could find themselves making decisions about everything from how many teachers to hire to how many paper clips to buy.

Not only that, they could be held accountable for an annual budget of up to $10-million in state funding.

Is Boyd, the principal at Azalea Elementary since 2000, ready for such a seismic shift in the way schools operate?

"Heck no," she said. "No one is, at this point."

As the Pinellas Education Foundation pushes the district to adopt a "site-based management" model, they say improved student achievement in Okaloosa County, local school leaders like Boyd have begun fretting over the details.

Among their questions: How will their jobs change with all the extra duties? How will they get the necessary participation from parents? And how will they deal with all that money, especially when their contract renewal may depend on their success or failure?

Interim superintendent Julie Janssen recently formed a group of veteran educators, including Boyd, to brainstorm some answers. The consensus so far is that the district will have to provide a lot of training to make it work.

"Even for savvy principals and principals who are very secure, it's going to be tough," said Fred Ulrich, principal at Largo Middle School and a member of Janssen's team. "We've never worked in this kind of environment."

Ulrich sees potential in the new way of managing schools but predicts it could lead some principals to resign. That's what happened in Okaloosa, where one-fourth of the district's top school administrators left in the first two years.

Other Pinellas principals have concerns about the increased role of School Advisory Councils.

State statute requires the groups, composed of parents and community members, to assist in the preparation of the school improvement plan. The groups also weigh in on how to spend A-plus money awarded by the state to schools that make progress on the FCAT.

Under the new plan, the SACs would be involved in deciding how to spend school budgets between $5-million and $10-million, depending on student population.

Susan Keller, principal at Kennedy Middle School in Clearwater, said high poverty schools like hers already struggle with parent participation.

"Do we have interested parents? Yes," said Keller. "Are people standing at the door to fill those seats? The answer is no."

In any given year, fewer than half of Pinellas schools have SACs that perform optimally, said Vic Rowley, outgoing president of the Pinellas Association of School Advisory Councils. Just as the district must provide training for principals, it will need to provide training for parents, Rowley said.

"SAC members don't always understand their role," he said. "On the other side, principals sometimes want to take the most expedient route, which can slight the SAC members."

The Pinellas SAC has expressed "qualified enthusiasm" for a "white paper" written by members of the education foundation and former Pinellas superintendent Clayton Wilcox that touts the Okaloosa model, Rowley said. But the group hopes the School Board will look at other models as well.

"We're interested because of the mandate in our articles of incorporation that we promote local control," he said. "But we need to see the board's discussion on this."

In the meantime, Janssen's group will continue to study the plan.

Boyd, the Azalea Elementary principal, said she'll be taking a book on site-based management with her when she goes on vacation.

"It's like that TV show House," Boyd said, referring to what she's learned about the plan so far. "The doctors and nurses are always trying to get to the root of the problem, then the finance lady says, 'Hold on a minute.'

"I would not want to be that administrator who is just looking at the numbers rather than the person looking at the diagnosis."

Donna Winchester can be reached at winchester@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8413.

Pinellas principals fret over CEOs model 07/06/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 8, 2008 10:53pm]
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