Insiders touted him eight years ago as the man who could lead the Pinellas County School District through a coming storm.
Now the storm is here. And insiders say he's the person who can help shepherd the district out of it.
John Stewart — no, not the guy from The Daily Show — is an unknown to most Pinellas parents and teachers. Yet, within days the soft-spoken, former state superintendent of the year could become interim schools chief.
Supporters say Stewart, 67, has the chops to not only calm a district roiled by two tumultuous leaders in a row, but maybe even regain some of the glow it lost over the past decade. His resume boasts 43 years of experience, from social studies teacher to superintendent to state education leader and more.
"John, he's been successful everywhere he's been," said Dick Mullenax, a School Board member in Polk County, where Stewart was superintendent for 13 years. "If I was going to use one word to describe him, it's 'consensus builder.' "
The Pinellas School Board on Tuesday will consider hiring Stewart to replace Julie Janssen, who was fired last week. Her last day is Friday.
If he is picked, Stewart would take over a day later and, board members say, he could be in place for up to a year as the district seeks a permanent leader.
On Thursday, shortly after negotiating his contract with district officials, Stewart appeared relaxed and confident.
First impressions: He is tassled loafers to Janssen's designer heels. He is a University of Florida Gators fan, a voracious reader of fiction and former runner whose bad knees have forced him to trade his jogs for one-hour-a-day walks on the treadmill.
Frequently described as a man of faith, Stewart says he does nothing without God's help. His beliefs, he said, guide him as he makes decisions, "but the decision will not be reached in the way of a faith, for a faith. It's just going to be a good decision for people."
After a tumultuous year with Janssen, Stewart seems to be offering all the things School Board members are hungry for: transparency, collaboration, a listening ear.
"And if you're able to convince me that it's worthwhile, then I will try to help you accomplish that," Stewart said. "But if I don't think it's worthwhile, I won't help you."
He pledged no surprises.
"I can promise you," he said, "no one will ever be blindsided by me."
There's some deja vu here.
Back in 2003, several board members unsuccessfully campaigned to have Stewart replace retiring superintendent Howard Hinesley. Stewart was the No. 2 at the time. But other board members wanted a search, and Stewart withdrew his name amid the controversy. Two months later he left the district for another job.
Behind the scenes last week, as it became clear Janssen would be fired, a majority of board members appeared to quickly and quietly line up behind Stewart.
No one else is being considered, leading some board members to ask: What's the rush?
The action seems hypocritical of a board that gave Janssen tremendous criticism for not vetting important decisions with the board and the public, said board member Linda Lerner.
"The reason we had major concerns about Dr. Janssen is exactly the same kind of thing we're doing now," she said. "It's jut a flawed process, and it should never be going the way it is."
Carol Cook, the board chairwoman, said that when she heard Stewart's name floated, it made sense to her. "He was here when we were at our best," said Cook, who was on the board in 2003. "He knows how we got there."
Former School Board member Mary Russell was one of those pushing for Stewart in 2003 and is doing so again.
"The district has done two dog-pony shows in five years. It got us nowhere," Russell wrote in an e-mail to the Times. "We need someone to come in and hit the ground running at the speed of light."
Stewart said that, if hired, he won't shy away from tackling big-ticket items such as the district's strategic plan, which Janssen started but never finished. His proposed $12,000-per-month contract also allows him to reorganize as he sees fit.
But sensitive to complaints that Janssen's administration left parents and teachers out of the loop in major decisions Stewart was quick to say he would involve community members in his decisions.
"Everyone has a valid opinion," he said. "And I want people to believe that I can help make things happen for the common good of everybody."
Stewart's resume is hefty.
He was principal of Winter Haven High in 1983 when Democratic Gov. Bob Graham picked him to be Polk superintendent — then an elected position — after its superintendent died following his victory in a politically contentious election.
Those who were there say Stewart provided a needed salve.
He is reluctant to talk about it now, calling 1983 "ancient history." But, in sum, Stewart says he listens well, tries to understand others' points of view and is rarely offended.
"I think that goes a long way with helping that person buy into what you want them to do," he said.
Following his appointment, Polk voters elected Stewart three times. In between stints in Polk and Pinellas, Stewart served as a deputy commissioner under two elected state education commissioners, Frank Brogan and Tom Gallagher, both Republicans.
"I know him to be a committed, fair leader who is great at both the big ideas and the follow-through," Brogan said in a written statement.
In Polk, Stewart oversaw a whirlwind of changes.
According to Mullenax, he pushed for a dress code that included mandatory uniforms for students in K-8; brought in the academically powerful International Baccalaureate program; helped establish the nationally recognized Harrison School for the Arts in Lakeland; and successfully led the district into compliance with court-ordered desegregation.
Stewart "always tried to think a little further down the road," said Mullenax, a former Polk teacher and administrator who has known Stewart 30 years.
Stewart was also instrumental in starting the Polk Education Foundation. Its first director, Terry Boehm, is now president of the Pinellas Education Foundation.
"The elected superintendent is a different style bureaucracy, I can tell you that," Boehm said. "John just played differently. He promoted folks for their quality, not their political orientation."
Stewart's proposed contract says he cannot apply to run Pinellas schools permanently. But nothing would bar the school board from asking him to stay on if a search comes up empty.
Stewart said in all likelihood he would not be interested in the permanent job, but he did not rule it out: "I never say never to anything," he said.
And Stewart appeared ready to fulfill the hope by supporters that he hit the ground running.
When asked if he expects to meet with Janssen about any transitional matters, Stewart shook his head.
"I won't need any of that."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8707.