Thursday, April 26, 2018
Education

Pinellas School Board members embrace audit's call for change

LARGO — The top leaders of Pinellas County schools gathered around a table first thing Monday morning with copies of a 127-page audit — a report that depicts the district as top-heavy, slow-moving, tone deaf and disorganized — and declared it "good."

"Was it difficult to hear some of the findings?" superintendent John Stewart asked. "Of course it was. . . . But without taking a realistic look at such a list, compiled by objective observers based on information supplied by our own people in this district and school leaders, how can we hope to improve?"

Stewart commissioned the $20,000 study shortly after being hired in the wake of the tumultuous tenure and departure of former schools chief Julie Janssen.

Undertaken by the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, the audit offered a comprehensive picture of the management and organization that oversees the 101,000-student district, describing departmental leaders as working in "silos," amid "confusion, conflicts, duplication and competition," leaving schools without the support they need to function effectively.

In response, Stewart said he plans to bring School Board members a time line for reorganizing top leadership by March 13 or 20. He could not say how many positions he expects to cut.

Board members seemed to embrace the report, with a few offering qualified remarks.

Linda Lerner, who has been on the board since 1990, said she appreciated the report's emphasis on the importance of the district having a viable strategic plan. Lerner took exception, however, to what auditors described as the board's conscious decision "that now is the time for systemic and holistic reform and realignment of all functions and responsibilities of the school district."

"I never said we're going to realign everything," Lerner said. "And I think this is a good place to start, but I very much want to make sure that staff has the ability to look at everything here."

Among the audit's recommendations is a complete restructuring of the Curriculum and Instruction department into a newly named division called the "Division of Teaching and Learning."

If the board were to adhere to the proposal, several employees now classified as "administrators" could be reclassified as non-administrative and could be subject to pay cuts.

Glen Gilzean, the newest member and the board's only minority, asked if he missed any mention in the report about diversity. No, Stewart responded, there wasn't anything about it.

Board member Peggy O'Shea said she's "very positive about the report" and urged her fellow board members to think about the process they're about to embark upon as if they were starting from scratch.

"I think a lot of it would match what we see in this report," O'Shea said. "But I want to make sure we're not leaving anything out."

Carol Cook said she'd like to see the board tackle reorganizing the district like it would an eight-course meal: "We know what's coming next, but we take it course by course."

Chairwoman Robin Wikle said the findings felt like "the end of three to four years of unknowns" and the board has one of two directions it can take it now.

"We can use it as a stepping-stone to move the district and align it to our goal or as a stumbling block to point fingers or lay blame for what we haven't done in the past," Wikle said. "And I think this board is ready to use it as a stepping stone."

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or [email protected]

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