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Pinellas superintendent's ties to future employer Scholastic draws concerns

Did Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox get too close to a company that did business with the district and ended up hiring him last month?

The question arose in a Times report Friday that detailed e-mail exchanges between Wilcox and Scholastic Corp. The answer varies among some of the people who know the school system best.

Wilcox's long relationship with top executives at Scholastic Corp., the children's book publisher, raised "no red flags" for School Board chairwoman Nancy Bostock.

"We want our CEOs to have good relations with our major vendors," she said. The practice leads to knowledgeable purchases, good contracts and better pricing, she said.

However, board member Linda Lerner said she previously expressed concern about Wilcox's participation in conferences sponsored by Scholastic and other education companies, and whether that violated the board's conflict of interest policy.

"It isn't that the board didn't know," Lerner said. "I've always brought it up before the board, and they've always blown me off."

Based on e-mails and a lengthy interview with Wilcox, the Times reported that the superintendent engaged in job discussions with Scholastic as early as April 2007; endorsed a Scholastic product for company sales materials; was a paid speaker at conferences held by an arm of Scholastic; and, at times, accepted meals at functions sponsored by the company.

He also adopted the practice of acquiring Broadway theater tickets through an executive assistant at Scholastic's New York City headquarters. It was a convenience, he said, but he paid for the tickets.

Wilcox, who became superintendent in 2004, announced April 17 that he had taken a job at Scholastic's New York headquarters. His title will be vice president, education and corporate relations. He plans to leave the district on June 3.

School Board policies and state laws vary somewhat on the rules for public officials.

Florida's ethics law allows officials to accept gifts, meals and expenses under certain circumstances. But it prohibits speaking fees at events sponsored by vendors.

The state's education law prohibits school officials from accepting anything of value from a vendor to directly or indirectly influence spending decisions.

The School Board's conflict of interest policy is perhaps the clearest of all three. It states: "No employee shall accept any gift, favor or service of value from persons or organizations who now are engaged in, or are being considered for, doing business with the school system."

Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said the report raised concerns.

"It confirms to me that he was just way too cozy with (Scholastic)," he said.

At the union, "our standards are so high that we don't do any of that stuff," Moore said. "Personally, we don't accept anything from (vendors). It's easy. You just don't do it."

He said he was most struck by Wilcox's speaking engagements with the Scholastic subsidiary and the superintendent's thea­ter ticket connection.

"Do you really think that those seats were available to the regular rank and file?" he asked, adding that he likes Wilcox.

"He was controversial but sometimes you have to be to shake up a system this size," Moore said. "I gave him the benefit of the doubt because he was so innovative. But it sure is a disappointment."

Board member Carol Cook saw it differently.

"Actually, I read it and it just really seemed like a whole lot of nothing," she said of the Times report.

"(Wilcox) was offered a good job, he didn't put the district in a compromising position, it doesn't appear he did anything unethical," she said. "It just gives everybody more to talk about … The reality is he's here for two more weeks."

Board member Janet Clark said she requested copies of the e-mails so she could examine them herself.

"I'm hardly ever speechless; I don't know what to tell you that would be printable," she said. "It bothers me that (job) conversations began in April 2007 … I thought there was more dedication to the district there, but I guess not."

The report dealt in part with a controversy in 2006 over the flawed implementation of a major Scholastic program for struggling readers known as Read 180. A district evaluation concluded that the school system and Scholastic were both at fault.

Wilcox led an effort to fix the problem and get Scholastic to help. But in an August 2006 e-mail, he apologized to a friend and mentor who is a top executive at the company. He worried their friendship had been harmed and said he would work to earn back his trust.

"Is that good business or unethical?" asked Cook. "To me, (Read 180) is fixed, it's moving forward, it didn't cost us thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars to get it fixed, and people came in and did what they needed to do."

Bostock pointed to numbers in the report showing the district's spending on Scholastic products did not spike up during Wilcox's tenure.

"That right there lets me know that there are not improper spending decisions being made in the district," Bostock said.

Cook, Bostock and Clark said they needed more details before passing judgment on some aspects of the report.

"It's all worth looking at," Bostock said, "and I think the board will have a good discussion."

Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at tobin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8923.

Pinellas superintendent's ties to future employer Scholastic draws concerns 05/17/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 19, 2008 4:28pm]
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