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Pinellas school superintendent candidates get a gentle grilling

LARGO — Three superintendent finalists were in the hot seat Wednesday, fielding questions about how they would lead the Pinellas County School District in the face of budget cuts, a large achievement gap and a rapidly changing testing system.

But it was far from the high-pressure situation that finalists could encounter on the job.

Facing one of their biggest decisions — selecting a new leader for the 104,000-student district — School Board members decided to keep to a script, skipping any personal or probing questions about the finalists' backgrounds or prior job experiences.

Mike Grego, 55, didn't have to explain why he left his job as superintendent of the Osceola County School District in 2011, despite widespread reports of a contentious relationship with that board's former chairwoman.

Christian Cutter, 43, an assistant superintendent in Douglas County, Colo., implemented that state's first voucher program, but wasn't asked about it — or the resulting lawsuit.

And Constance Jones, 62, didn't have to talk about why her School Board passed her over to lead Lee County's school district, where she has been chief academic officer for nine years.

At the close of her interview, Jones expected board members to ask whether she was ready to become a superintendent. They didn't, but she wanted to give an answer: "I'm 100 percent convinced that I can," she said.

Board chairwoman Robin Wikle said members wanted to ask each candidate the same questions to allow for a better comparison. Board members will be able to ask more questions today during private one-on-one interviews, she said.

The board will discuss the candidates — and their impressions of them — during a public workshop next week. That's also when they'll decide what the next step should be, whether that involves another round of interviews, community meet-and-greets or an entirely new search.

Only a handful of people showed up Wednesday to listen to the interviews, and most were union leaders or district employees.

Each candidate sat at the head of a table with board members, with a little more than an hour to answer 15 questions. The board could ask for clarification on the answers, but no additional followup questions.

Questions included:

• In your role as superintendent, who do you consider your key stakeholder groups and how will you engage them in supporting academic achievement, school safety, and student and employee engagement?

• As superintendent, what would you consider to be the greatest challenges facing Pinellas County schools? What steps would you take to overcome those challenges?

• While unofficially polling our stakeholders on what they would like to see in the next superintendent, overwhelmingly the word "integrity" came up. Integrity is also one of our core values in our Strategic Plan. How would you describe your integrity and how it correlates to being Pinellas County's next superintendent?

• What is your experience advocating for or against legislative issues that impact school districts? What is your opinion of the Florida Accountability System, including FCAT, Common Core, end of course exams, and increased state-mandated graduation requirements? How do we follow the mandates while doing what is best for students?

Jones and Grego, who both have long careers in Florida, were at ease discussing the state's educational system and Pinellas County schools. Cutter, who has never worked in the state, seemed to struggle.

"There's not a lot of … information that I have right now," he said, when asked about the biggest challenges facing Pinellas County schools.

He suggested that low-performing schools should be a priority, along with employee morale and "some efficiencies in finance and management."

Grego said funding, declining enrollment and state mandates were top issues, while Jones cited the graduation rate, achievement gap between black and white students and increasing the academic rigor of programs.

Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com, (727) 893-8846 or on Twitter @Fitz_ly.

Pinellas school superintendent candidates get a gentle grilling 08/22/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 23, 2012 9:34am]
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