LARGO — Don't call John Stewart interim superintendent of the Pinellas County School District any more. School Board members on Monday decided to drop the "interim" — signaling their approval of his leadership over the 100,000-student district.
Less than three months after taking the reins from ousted school chief Julie Janssen, Stewart has charmed his bosses with his low-key, take-charge style, moving forward with complicated initiatives that prior to his leadership often seemed to move at a snail's pace.
On Monday, Stewart and his staff briefed the board on the details of two such proposals: a planned reorganization of the district's communications office and the final tweaks in a student rezoning plan scheduled for a board vote next week.
"We couldn't wish for or want more," said Terry Krassner, the board member who requested Stewart's title change during a board workshop.
Stewart, a former Polk County superintendent who went on to lead and retire from the Florida High School Athletic Association, has agreed to stay in Pinellas a total of 18 months, but said he wants to return to retirement after that. On Monday he said he was honored by the board's decision, but said it made "no difference" to him either way.
He is serving on an open-ended, $12,000 a month contract. Board chairwoman Robin Wikle said the title change is just a matter of semantics and doesn't require a board vote.
In other business:
• Administrators laid out the final tweaks on a controversial student rezoning and assignment plan up for a board vote Dec. 6. The plan calls for a redrawing of school zones at 27 of the district's 63 elementary schools. It also requires some students currently attending out-of-zone schools to return to their neighborhood schools.
In all, according to numbers presented by deputy superintendent Jim Madden and his staff, 2,183 kids will be required to change schools. These include 1,248 students who are attending a nonzoned school due to the fact that their families moved. Another 1,716 students who are currently attending out-of-zone campuses because of open enrollment or because they were denied space at their zoned schools could be allowed to remain at their current schools, if their parents apply by Jan. 31.
• Stewart presented a plan to reorganize the district's communications department, whittling it from a nine-person office to seven. Stewart said the move comes in response to an external audit released this summer. "I realized that in order to get better results," he said, "we would need to do more than rearrange chairs. We would need to have a communications reform."
Andrea Zahn, the district's communications director since 2006, announced her plans to retire. Under Stewart's plan, her $77,741 position will essentially be eliminated in lieu of a "director of strategic communications" job, which would be filled by Donna Winchester, a former St. Petersburg Times reporter who joined the district in 2009. It is unclear what, if any, cost savings the reorganization would yield, Stewart said.