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Schools made big changes in short order

Ready to see what’s new: Hundreds of people waited in line for the Explorer K-8 School “sneak peek” the school put on July 31. Groups of twelve were taken in and given guided tours of the new school.

LANCE ARAM ROTHSTEIN | Times

Ready to see what’s new: Hundreds of people waited in line for the Explorer K-8 School “sneak peek” the school put on July 31. Groups of twelve were taken in and given guided tours of the new school.

It was the year everything started moving in the Hernando County schools — moving up, down, in, out, and perhaps even out of town.

As 2008 began, superintendent Wayne Alexander signaled he would be setting many of those forces into motion himself. He vowed to reorganize the district's administration to make sure every child got a fair shake.

By spring, the outlines of that shake-up were becoming clear. On a single day in March, about one-third of the district's 21 principals were shuffled. Senior administrators saw their jobs eliminated or reconstituted, and in case anyone missed the point, Alexander made it plain.

"There's a point when you reach stagnation, and if you don't realize it, at some point your supervisor has to say so," he said.

As he spoke, a rezoning committee was putting the finishing touches on a plan that would see one in every five of the district's 22,704 students switch schools in the fall, in order to accommodate the new Explorer K-8 School in Spring Hill.

Veteran School Board member Jim Malcolm announced his retirement, and a slate of candidates began maneuvering to replace him, including the eventual winner, James Yant.

School grades were on the upswing, with the district earning its first "A" grade under the state's testing system.

And 11,000 brand-new, leased Dell computers were delivered to schools in a top-to-bottom technology makeover.

But the faltering economy was already forcing another, unwelcome change: budget cuts. In May, the shortfall was projected at $2-million; by June, officials spoke of a $4.5-million loss in state funding, or perhaps more if enrollment slumped.

And slump it did. The district's September enrollment was 328 students lower than officials had predicted, even as Explorer K-8 struggled to handle more than 200 extra students who showed up unexpectedly.

Despite the dire budget picture, and the near certainty of more state funding cuts in the new year, the School Board managed to find the money in November to give teachers and staff a raise of nearly 4 percent in salary and benefits.

But as the year drew to a close, there was yet another surprise.

Less than two years after arriving in Hernando County, Alexander told board members he had been forced to look for a new job in New England, as part of a visitation dispute involving children from his new wife's first marriage. Already he is one of four semifinalists to lead a school district in suburban Boston.

Alexander told the board that he hoped to stay in his current job and finish the changes he set in motion.

But officials worry that his departure — or even the possibility of it — is one disruption too many for a school district that has been buffeted by change.

"If he does get the job, and with the situation with the state budget, I think the board will have to make a decision to put an interim superintendent in place," said teachers union president Joe Vitalo. "Because we don't need a lame-duck superintendent during these times."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Schools made big changes in short order 12/26/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 30, 2008 5:22pm]

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