Friday, June 22, 2018

Three finalists to interview for superintendent of Pinellas County schools

The Pinellas County School Board soon will face one of its biggest decisions: selecting a new superintendent.

Board members will interview three finalists Wednesday — a former top state education official, a strong academic leader and an administrator known for starting Colorado's first voucher program.

No decision is expected Wednesday, and there is a possibility that the School Board will launch an entirely new search to lead the 104,000-student district, as has been pushed by some in the community.

Here are the candidates:

Mike Grego

Of the three finalists, Mike Grego has the greatest name recognition in the Tampa Bay area and, perhaps, the most impressive resume and connections.

Among his notable jobs: Florida's interim chancellor for public education, senior adviser to the state education commissioner, university professor and school superintendent.

Grego, 55, built his reputation by rising from teacher to assistant superintendent of curriculum over a 28-year career in Hills­borough County schools. Later, with the state, he successfully handled Florida's waiver from federal No Child Left Behind requirements.

As superintendent of Osceola County schools, he has been credited with making dramatic strides in the 55,000-student, high-poverty school district.

In three years of his leadership, Osceola saw a double-digit increase in its graduation rate, had all of its schools earn a C or above for the first time, and expanded its career academies from one to 22.

If there is a question mark hovering over Grego's application, it's this: Did he leave Osceola in 2011 because of a personality conflict with the board's former chairwoman, Cindy Hartig?

It's a subject that Grego is reluctant to discuss — at least publicly.

"I refuse to get in the mud," he said. "Those (Pinellas) board members are aware of that situation there, and I'll answer any (of their) questions about that."

Hartig, who just lost her re-election bid, acknowledges that Grego was "great for education." But she accuses him of being a "dictator" and "very political."

Grego disputes that description of his leadership style and said he left to pursue other professional opportunities. Stints as interim chancellor and senior adviser to the education commissioner followed.

"I think it makes me a much stronger applicant than if I had spent another year as superintendent," he said.

Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, who conducted the superintendent search in Pinellas, described the five-member Osceola board as one in tumult. He noted that the district has gone through two superintendents, including Grego, in a little more than a year and is searching for a third. An interim is in place for six months.

Grego's fans are plentiful — and effusive.

Margaret Griffin, a school administrator who worked for Grego in Hillsborough County, described him as that rare administrator who rises to power but remains approachable. Ron Blocker, retired school superintendent of Orange County, said Grego was "consumed with the desire to do a good job."

Jay Wheeler, another Osceola board member, had high praise for him, saying, "What he did in Osceola County was nothing short of a miracle."

Constance 'Connie' Jones

The biggest question lingering over Constance Jones' candidacy is why the Lee County School Board didn't pick her to lead its own schools.

In 25 years as a public school administrator there, Jones, 62, has built a reputation as a skilled communicator, a data-driven educator and, it seems, quite a pleasant person.

"If you look at her history, everything she's ever touched, she's excelled at," said Richard Kipp, a former Lee County School Board member.

Over the nine years Jones has served as Lee's chief academic officer, the 85,000-student district has seen improvements in its dropout rate and graduation rates, and lifted its district grade from a B to three straight A's in 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2010-11.

A recent Brookings Institution study showed Lee's district with the second smallest achievement gap between lower- and upper-income students among the nation's 100 largest metro area districts.

"She knows how to pull a team together and get things done," said Jane Kuckel, a Lee School Board member, who said she called Pinellas board members individually to endorse Jones for the position.

Still, Kuckel was among a board majority that voted to hire Joseph Burke from Monroe County as superintendent, even though Jones was a finalist for the seat.

Donna Mutzenard, executive director of the local teacher's union, said, "I can tell you she was our No. 1 choice for the seat."

Mutzenard and Kuckel both blamed changing board politics for Jones being overlooked.

Jones had worked closely as the No. 2 for longtime Lee superintendent Jim Browder, whose work fell out of favor with a newly elected board majority, they said.

Browder, who now leads the Anchorage School District in Alaska, was highly complimentary of Jones' work and leadership style.

Asked what he believes Jones' weakness is, Browder chuckled: "You might say it's that she worked with me."

Christian 'Chris' Cutter

In the Douglas County School District that serves affluent Castle Rock, Colo., Christian Cutter appears to be best known as the face of a controversial school voucher program.

Hired two years ago in the 64,000-student district as an assistant superintendent of elementary education, Cutter, 43, was tasked with designing a voucher pilot after a unanimous school board agreed it wanted a way to help 500 students attend private, mostly religious schools using taxpayer dollars.

"I didn't have any qualms," Cutter said Wednesday of the role in which he found himself. "It's what our community wanted."

A judge later blocked the effort, calling it unconstitutional.

Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers, said tensions with the teachers union reached a boiling point in Douglas County in the last year. Cutter was a part of the district bargaining team that, for the first time 47 years, failed to reach a settlement with the union, leading the union to request state intervention.

Cutter's career path shows a fast rise from teacher to administrator, jumping from district to district in his ascent. In the seven years he was a teacher, he says he worked in three schools in three different parts of the world. Cutter worked for 2½ years as assistant principal in two more districts before being hired as a principal in Adams County, Colo., by George Straface.

"He's a very focused individual," said Straface, now superintendent in Bentonville, Ark.

"I have been fortunate enough to work with great people who have given me opportunities to grow and expand my skills," Cutter said, explaining his mobility.

Cutter is Canadian by birth and said he became a U.S. citizen last year and changed his name from Christian Cutter Budolowski because his full name was inconveniently long.

Some members of the Pinellas board have questioned the veracity of two parts of his resume — that he called himself "assistant superintendent" without indicating his full title of "assistant superintendent of elementary education" and that he included material without crediting its source.

In an email to the Tampa Bay Times, Cutter said he believed he should have credited the material and apologized if his job title caused confusion.

On Wednesday, he said he believes this week's in-person interview will go a long way toward helping him and the board know if they are a good fit.

Times researchers Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected], (727) 893-8846 or on Twitter @Fitz_ly. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8707.

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