Clayton M. Wilcox, the candid and often controversial superintendent who pushed the Pinellas County school system into a new era, announced late Thursday that he is leaving the district to work for Scholastic Corp., the children's book publishing giant.
Wilcox's contract doesn't expire until 2011, and it calls for him to give the district five months' notice before leaving. But he asked the School Board on Thursday to release him by June 1.
He will work in the New York City offices of Scholastic, with the title of vice president, education and corporate relations. The company, perhaps best known as the U.S. publisher of the wildly popular Harry Potter series, said Wilcox, 53, will be responsible for "building relationships with district administrators, state departments of education and education organizations."
Wilcox, who said the company recently approached him, described it as a rare chance to improve literacy on a national level.
For Pinellas schools, however, his departure comes at a critical crossroads. The district is facing its most serious budget crisis in years and is in the middle of a major transformation to a system of "close-to-home" schools. In addition, Wilcox and his staff are up to their necks in several new initiatives, including a change in the middle school schedule, efforts to improve the graduation rate and a broad push to expand vocational programs.
Even as he announced his resignation, Wilcox told the Times of yet another new project — a plan to change high school start times from 7:05 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. and middle school start times from 9:45 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. as soon as the 2008-09 school year, all while reducing bus driver overtime costs by $4-million.
But Wilcox and School Board members said they were confident a new interim leader could easily be found among the district's upper administrative ranks. Wilcox's top deputies, Julie Janssen and Harry Brown, are the most obvious candidates. Wilcox elevated both administrators from principal jobs in 2006.
Wilcox's district salary is $204,509 this year. He said the Scholastic job will pay more.
Most of the company's top leaders — those in the executive vice president ranks above Wilcox's new position — are paid in the range of $790,000 to about $2-million, including stock options.
News is a surprise
The announcement took many by surprise. Wilcox had three years left on his contract, and he often spoke of staying in Pinellas until his children got through high school. His son, Tanner, and his daughter, Morgann, are still in middle school.
Al Bennett, principal at St. Petersburg High, found out from a TV report as he ran on a treadmill at a local gym.
"We had a superintendent's meeting the first of the month; he seemed real upbeat," Bennett said of Wilcox. "He talked a lot about going into the end of the year and his plans for going forward next year. He talked about the budget crisis. He said we would come through it together. There was no indication at that time he was heading out the door."
Bennett added: "We're kind of moving into the unknown now."
Wilcox said the offer from Scholastic unfolded quickly. Two or three weeks ago, he said, the company asked him to meet with its CEO, Richard Robinson, and one of the corporation's board members. It was a chance to sample the company's culture and see whether the job was a good fit, he said.
"I just felt an incredible match. Their passion is my passion," said Wilcox, who got a written offer Saturday in a FedEx package sent by Scholastic. "I have a tremendous opportunity to work with a really talented team on something I've been passionate about."
Pinellas is long-time customer of Scholastic's, the most notable contract coming in 2006 when the School Board approved an $876,945 upgrade to a program for struggling readers known as Read 180. Wilcox recommended the upgrade but negotiated a reduction in price from the company after a district evaluation found problems with Read 180. A top Scholastic official came to Pinellas to iron out the problems, the blame for which fell on both the company and the district.
Asked whether his new job raised questions about a conflict of interest, Wilcox said, "I think that's a fair question." But he added: "There's no quid pro quo here."
He argued that the district had a long history with Scholastic before he arrived and that 80 percent of districts in the United Staetes deal with the company. He said he generally does not become directly involved in purchasing decisions, including those for Scholastic products.
"I've probably been their worst nightmare in some ways," Wilcox said of Scholastic. "Part of me is a little surprised that they'd offer me (a job) because I was the superintendent of the school district that probably gave them the biggest black eye in modern history."
When he was hired in 2004, Wilcox told the School Board: "I don't know that there's ever a good time to leave. I'm telling you that I will stay as long as you'll have me."
He said he couldn't have predicted that the future would hold "the opportunity to influence literacy on a national scale."
Other pressures weighed on Wilcox, including a recent public feud with School Board attorney Jim Robinson that required mediation, and periodic squabbles with some board members.
But Wilcox said neither played a role in his departure. The tiff with Robinson was frustrating, he said, but he added: "This is absolutely more about me going and being able to chase my passion on a larger scale than it is leaving something. I know people will find that hard (to believe.)"
As for his sometimes strained relations with board members, such as Mary Brown and Linda Lerner, he said he gets along personally with all board members.
"I get that people see the tension," he said, "but that's because we all care passionately about kids, and we just go at it differently."
The prospect of the board's make-up changing significantly in this year's election was "scary," he said, but not overly concerning.
"I'm happy for him. It sounds like it's a job that he really wants," Lerner said. "What I said to him was, 'You actually had a succession plan. You put in Dr. Janssen and Dr. Brown, who are excellent people for the position of deputy superintendent.' I said, 'I know the district is in good hands.' "
One challenge for Wilcox's successor will be negotiations with teachers, who may not get raises next year. Many also are upset with a proposal to change the middle school schedule.
"Morale is very low, but we're going to look at this as an opportunity for change," said Kim Black, president of the teachers union. "We're gong to stay positive. We wish him well."
Board member Jane Gallucci said she didn't know whether Wilcox left because of problems with the board, but she added that was a persistent fear.
"I know from my connections in the corporate world I was always being asked, 'How is Clayton doing? Is he thinking of leaving?' " she said.
The most prophetic words may have come from someone who knows Wilcox well.
Interviewed for a 2004 Times profile of her son, Anita Wilcox of Cedar Falls, Iowa, said: "He likes a challenge, and he likes to see it through, but then he's looking for another challenge."
Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8923. Donna Winchester can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8413.