Fresh off a two-year effort that launched a system of "close-to-home" schools, Pinellas education officials are pondering another seismic change.
A proposal to decentralize the district — potentially giving principals, teachers and parents broad new powers to run schools — is dominating the landscape this summer.
Interim superintendent Julie Janssen is discussing "school-based management" with administrators. She has asked principals to read a book on the topic.
Meanwhile, a group of business and civic leaders with the Pinellas Education Foundation is rounding up support for the idea with a petition, an "awareness campaign" titled Students First. The group wants the issue to be part of the debate in this summer's School Board election.
Already, three board members — Jane Gallucci, Nancy Bostock and Peggy O'Shea — have signed a statement of support for the foundation's recent "white paper," A Case for Change in Pinellas Schools, which has sparked the debate. The paper says Pinellas could improve its stagnant student performance by re-creating the business-minded reforms carried out in Okaloosa County. The Panhandle district produced so many A-rated schools in 2003 and 2004 that then-Lt. Gov. Tony Jennings once proclaimed: "This is what everyone else strives to be."
But local enthusiasm for the foundation's push has been tempered by questions over whether the Okaloosa miracle can be replicated in Pinellas, a larger and much different district. Many also have concerns about the size of such a conversion, which would entail a massive realignment of responsibilities in a work force of 15,000 people, continuous training, and the discipline to stick to the task for years — a skill Pinellas has not displayed in recent times.
Researchers who have measured the impact of school-based management say the gains in student achievement tend to be modest at best and take five to eight years to achieve.
In short, the district is being asked to finesse a change as difficult as any in its history.
Principals, in theory, would rise from their current roles as middle managers to become chief operating officers of their schools, with final say on staffing, curriculum and multimillion budgets. But they also would be called on to share power with school-based councils made up of teachers, parents and possibly community members.
Teachers, meanwhile, would have a much greater role, coaching and evaluating their peers, deciding on staffing needs and assisting with hiring.
Parents and community members accustomed to limited roles at schools also would be called on to help make staffing, budget and curriculum decisions.
Educators have touted the benefits of this arrangement, saying those closest to schools are more creative and have a better handle on school needs than the folks at district headquarters.
As reforms go, decentralization also is inexpensive because it shifts costs to the school level — a major selling point with the foundation. Okaloosa officials did not ask taxpayers for more money, the white paper argues. "They worked smarter, and better managed their resources."
Still, problems occur.
In his 2007 report on school-based management, Northwestern University professor Thomas D. Cook focused on attempted reforms in Detroit, Chicago and Prince George's County, Md.
Principals didn't relish being the ones held accountable while having to share power with teachers and parents.
Teachers had more clout but didn't like the extra work that went with it. Parents often did not have time to participate and were bewildered by teachers, "whose technical jargon was sometimes not understood even by native English speakers," wrote Cook, a sociologist.
In Chicago, he said, some community members tried to control schools for political ends.
"A minority of schools overcame these obstacles," Cook wrote, "but most could not."
He concluded: "It is probably not wise to put all one's educational reform resources into the (school-based management) basket as it is currently conceived."
In Pinellas, supporters agree the change would be difficult.
"It's doable, but it's going to require strong leadership and a board that focuses on policy and not implementation and administration of the plan," said foundation president Terry Boehm.
Frank Fuller, an assistant superintendent in Okaloosa, has told Pinellas audiences that the change won't come easily.
"It will be a whole lot of work," Fuller said. "The first person to jump up and say, 'Hey, I swallowed the Kool-Aid and I want to do it' is an idiot."
One-fourth of Okaloosa's principals transferred to other jobs in the first two years of the transformation, Fuller recalled.
According to a recent report by the World Bank, one problem with measuring the impact of school-based management is that it's often unclear whether improvements are the result of the reform or other factors. Pinellas officials are wondering the same thing.
The foundation's white paper bases Okaloosa's success on the percentage of A-rated schools, saying it ranks first in Florida.
But demographics figure prominently into school grades, and Okaloosa has 26 percent fewer poor families than Pinellas.
In any case, Okaloosa's No. 1 ranking has slipped to No. 3.
The white paper also points to graduation rates as a key measure. Pinellas' increased a paltry 2 percentage points from 1998 to 2007. Okaloosa's increased by 8 percentage points. But 38 Florida counties did better.
Should Pinellas be studying their successes too? Janssen, the interim superintendent, says yes.
"Okaloosa is only one model," said Janssen, who initially expressed strong support for the foundation's push but has since pulled back. She declined to sign the foundation's petition, along with School Board members Linda Lerner and Janet Clark.
"This means I have got to find the best of what they say is out there."