Retired school principal and third-generation Pinellas resident Terry Krassner recently started down a new path as one of two newly elected Pinellas County School Board members. Coming from a family rooted in education — her father, Lee Benjamin, was a longtime School Board member and her mother was a teacher for 18 years — Krassner said the job is a lot tougher than she thought. Krassner talked about the changes and challenges she and the district face.
How has the transition been for you, and what are some of the biggest changes you face so far?
My dad (Lee Benjamin) was on the School Board for 14 years, so I thought I had a clue. (Laughs.) Well, I do have a clue, but I didn't realize how tough it is. All your communication is done in one room, and that makes that rough … you also realize you want to please everybody and make everybody happy. That is a lot tougher to do when it comes to zoning or other issues that impact the entire district.
The funding issue is huge, and now that we've got to make radical changes somewhere, we're just making sure that we make the best informed decision between getting input from various stakeholders and having input from various knowledge bases. You're just spending a lot more time gathering information and hearing from everybody. It seems like in a school, you have a community, you are on the same page and people can give you input and make decisions; you reach decisions easily, and we keep moving forward. I just feel like it's a very, very tough time just getting the information and just knowing that we're making the best decision. Sometimes I feel like we haven't done enough research or heard from enough people. … Sometimes it's the transparency piece. They (district administrators) are working on different issues, and we are not there to hear how they make the decision. Sometimes that makes it tough. You've got to have a lot of trust.
What's the biggest challenge?
Communication is the biggest. You can never have enough communication. Unfortunately, with the Sunshine Law, you just do not get to talk too much. You have to get the job done at the board table, and I know that is not enough time to accomplish things — to make sure you ask the right questions and get all the answers. At the school level you can do your own investigations and you know you have a staff you believe in, and you know they are very thorough; you get a lot of good data to make good decisions. … Dr. Janssen wants to make good decisions for the district, and I am not sure if she has enough support in the district to make those decisions. We used to have people who you know if they are going to take something on, they are going to use all their energy to be very thorough, and use the best practices and research out there. (Now) you just have key players and it seems like a much smaller group making the decisions, and I am not sure how invested the principals are and the regional superintendents are; you don't know how they are brought in to make some of those decisions and where their comfort levels are at being able to talk freely.
How is it working with other board members?
We've only been on for a few months, but Lew Williams, I have known him forever and respect him, and Linda Lerner, I know how thorough she is investigating and reading everything. I feel like as a group we are listening to each other and being respectful, and we are hearing each other. Again, all you have is the time in the board meeting to go forward and make a game plan, and that is a very tough way to work. We're trying to accomplish more in a shorter period of time, and it takes a long time to get to where you need to go. … That is my biggest frustration; there's just a couple of meetings a month, but there is so much to accomplish.
We're in the budget season now. How's the district dealing with potential cuts to schools?
We know that class size is not an option; we have to meet the class size amendment. I don't know how the schools can do that, honestly. I look at the elementary level and to me they are as bare bones as they can be from operation to cafeteria staff; already there have been such huge cuts. … I think we need to reduce our regional superintendents back to three and the portables, we need to give up those. I think each department is trying to find areas where they can cut, and I believe they have been given the assignment to see how they can cut a percentage from each department and I am anxious to see how they are going to do that. The biggest thing to me is not impacting schools, keeping the curriculum and keeping schools safe. We are going to have to be careful. I am hoping that we can find enough in other areas.
How do you as a board member plan to fix some of these problems?
I know we need a time line that we have to stick to. I know there are extenuating circumstances at this time; we have to let people know this is going to happen this month and these are the changes that are going to happen … [for example] for families to know the start time in school by no later than May, and for teachers to know what units are available in schools. We shouldn't wait until summer to do this; we should get it all done so everybody can have peace of mind, so they can go and have their own plans.
What do you think the district is doing well and not doing well?
I love what we're doing with the centers for excellence in schools. … Seeing the motivation those programs bring to our students, I am hoping that would help with our graduation rates, and that is one of my biggest disappointments. I want to fulfill our students' dreams and have programs in school to keep them wanting to come to school and seeing if we can find the right spot for them. We had a magnet fair and … we do really have phenomenal programs, and the fair was packed with families. But I am not so sure we do a good job in communication, in communicating to the public about those programs. I want our eighth-graders to know what is there before they go to high school. In personnel, we are doing everything to make sure we have the best teachers and that our administrators know what to do to take it to the next step (referring to the recent St. Petersburg Times story on Maria Raysses-Whipple, a teacher who remained in the system despite three decades of complaints). We want to know that we're supporting teachers as much as we can, giving them as much as we can to strengthen their skills. And if not, then we have to do what we have to do to make sure we are doing everything on our end of not having anyone who is not doing right to our students.