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Pinellas School Board likes temporary superintendent, delays search for successor

A month into his job as interim superintendent over Pinellas County schools, John Stewart has made such a great impression on his bosses that they've decided to delay finding a permanent replacement.

School Board members on Tuesday said they'd like to move forward with a search, but they won't hire anyone until they've left the district in Stewart's hands for at least a year.

"I think we hit the lottery right now after a month of working," board member Robin Wikle said during a board workshop.

Stewart is honest, transparent, confident and communicative, she said. He fits the description of the leader the board sought during the last search in 2008, board member Linda Lerner said. He's helping put the district on the right track, board chairwoman Carol Cook said.

Stewart took the district's reins on Sept. 3, a day after the board terminated its contract with Julie Janssen following repeated questions about her leadership style and performance.

On Tuesday, Stewart, 67, told board members that he was "deeply gratified" by their comments and said he'd be happy to stay in the position for up to 18 months.

After that, he said, he wants to get back to his family: "I'm married to a wonderful woman and we've been married 44 years. I want to be married to her for another 44, if possible."

Lerner, who chairs the board's subcommittee on the superintendent search, said she and board members Lew Williams and Peggy O'Shea will regroup next Tuesday to decide when they will begin the search in earnest. But they want to give Stewart time to address some of the issues the board and administration have had difficulty tackling — such as middle school reform, closing the achievement gap between races and training quality teachers.

"Let's take some time," Cook said. "Let's get the district on the right track and then let's find someone who can move it from there."

With deputy superintendent Jim Madden planning an October 2012 retirement, Cook even suggested that the board could consider hiring a new superintendent into that deputy position for three months with the agreement that at the end of Stewart's stint, he or she would move directly into the top job. This would also give Stewart an opportunity to train his successor.

Cook's idea could save the district from potentially having to pay three superintendent salaries at the same time, if Stewart were to stay on and help with the transition. Already, the district must pay Janssen at least a year's salary due to the conditions of her contract termination.

Also Tuesday:

• The board agreed to vote on a proposal to continue a feeder pattern between Douglas L. Jamerson Elementary and Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle for at least one more year.

Board members originally questioned whether they should continue the arrangement of giving fifth-graders at the nonfundamental elementary school priority at the application-only fundamental middle school.

But Madden suggested board members hold off on significant changes to the plan until they take up the middle school reform effort that Stewart is pushing.

Stewart told the board Tuesday that he was disturbed to learn the district has more than 3,000 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds in middle schools.

"We have to get something that is age appropriate and subject matter appropriate for these kids," Stewart said. He said he directed associate superintendent Bill Lawrence to begin assembling a team to tackle the matter immediately.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

Pinellas School Board likes temporary superintendent, delays search for successor 10/04/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 4, 2011 10:51pm]
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