After a widely criticized search process, the Pinellas County School Board took just a half-hour Tuesday to name its new leader — a former top state education official and superintendent with strong ties to the Tampa Bay area.
Board members called Mike Grego a man of integrity with a proven track record of improving student achievement. Even members who had wanted to look for more candidates said they were deeply impressed by him.
"Dr. Grego was definitely the candidate for me," said board member Terry Krassner, who once didn't want to interview any of the three finalists. "I wasn't expecting to be that convinced, but I was totally convinced."
Board member Linda Lerner said Grego "far surpassed" the board's expectations.
What turned the tide?
After last week's heavily scripted public interviews of the candidates, board members met one-on-one, out of the public eye, with the prospects. And that, several members said, is where Grego impressed them with his grasp of the issues and passion for data-driven results.
Only a few people, mostly district employees, reporters and union leaders, attended the public interviews. Board members said Tuesday that they will introduce their pick to the public at a "meet and greet'' on Sept. 10.
Grego's appointment is pending contract negotiations; the post pays between $225,000 and $275,000 a year. He said that he was "absolutely thrilled and excited" by the board's decision.
"I couldn't be happier. This is a dream come true for me," he said.
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Grego, 55, built his reputation by moving from a 28-year career in Hillsborough County schools to be superintendent in Osceola County, where he was credited with dramatic academic gains in the 55,000-student school district. He also earned recognition as Florida's interim chancellor for public education. Most recently, he has taught doctoral and graduate-level courses in educational leadership at the University of Central Florida.
In Hillsborough, Grego was regarded as a detail-oriented leader comfortable poring through student data. Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia called him a "great leader for Pinellas County."
"He understands what needs to be done to move students to success," she said.
Grego beat out two other finalists, Constance Jones, 62, chief academic officer of Lee County schools, and Christian Cutter, 43, an assistant superintendent in Colorado.
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Although Tuesday's decision required only a brief meeting, it has been a long time coming for the 104,000-student school system. The School Board voted 7-0 a year ago to fire former superintendent Julie Janssen, ending a tumultuous three-year tenure and setting off a search for a new leader for the fourth time in seven years.
The search itself was rocky — many of the candidates were unqualified and uninspiring even to board members. The Pinellas Education Foundation, a business-led nonprofit that has been critical of district leadership, offered to pay for another search.
Superintendent John Stewart, who came out of retirement to serve in the interim, has been praised as a calming force, but some board members said Tuesday that it's time for longer-term stability.
On Tuesday, Stewart said he would step aside at any time.
Board chairwoman Robin Wikle said she has felt since her election four years ago that the district has been lacking in leadership, and if the board found the right person she wanted to snag him. "I was more than ready as a board member to get this district humming again," she said.
The board was mostly mum about the finalists after last week's public interviews, in which all candidates were asked the same questions (Sample: How would you describe your integrity and how it correlates to being Pinellas County's next superintendent?)
Board members said Grego came to the private meetings with detailed plans and a sense of urgency about tackling problems such as the achievement gap and low graduation rates among black males.
Yet he didn't seem inflexible or domineering, members said.
"He's not trying to make us into Osceola or Hillsborough," board member Peggy O'Shea said.
Under Grego's leadership for three years, Osceola County schools experienced a double-digit increase in its graduation rate and all of its schools earned a C or above for the first time.
There were lingering questions about why he left in June 2011 and his apparently contentious relationship with that board's former chairwoman, Cindy Hartig. Hartig told the Times that she thought Grego was a "dictator."
The question wasn't asked in public, though some board members asked it in private.
Krassner said she had a sense of what happened based on watching a YouTube video of a meeting in which Grego appeared gracious and composed in a clash with a combative Hartig. "I asked and I was satisfied that I didn't want to hear anymore," she said.
Board member Glenton Gilzean said Grego brought up the topic himself.
"He started off and said, 'Let me tell you about what happened in Osceola' and I said, 'I don't really care what happened in Osceola, I care about what's going to happen here,' " Gilzean said, adding that he was "extremely impressed" by Grego.
Of the three finalists, Grego has been the most widely praised, with letters of support pouring in from Pinellas, Hillsborough, Osceola and Orange counties.
Alice Loeb, a retired administrator in Hillsborough, was one of several people who wrote to the board after reading Hartig's comment in the Times. She described Grego as a "man of honor and integrity."
People who worked with Grego praised Tuesday's board decision.
"I think Mike will be a breath of fresh, experienced leadership for Pinellas," said Kathleen Shanahan, chairwoman of the Florida Board of Education.
Candy Olson, chairwoman of the Hillsborough School Board, said she thought Grego might be what's needed to "bring some peace" to Pinellas.
Jim Myers, chairman of the Pinellas Education Foundation, said that even though the foundation had advocated for a new search, he thought it was important that board members were in such strong agreement. "It's good to have closure," he said.
Staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com, (727) 893-8846 or on Twitter @Fitz_ly.