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School district spat has happened before

Jim Robinson didn't want to fight this battle again.

As Pinellas County School Board attorney since 2005, Robinson has survived his share of political tussles.

He famously clashed with former superintendent Clayton Wilcox so severely that the board ordered the two to a facilitator. After Julie Janssen took Wilcox's seat, tension escalated when she sought a change in the structure of the legal office over Robinson's objections.

Now, superintendent John Stewart wants to do the same, recommending that associate counsel Laurie Dart report to him instead of Robinson. It's "what's best for the district," Stewart said last week.

But Robinson, who is retiring in August, said he has argued this point two times already with other superintendents. "I just didn't see that it was fruitful," he said.

Both men caught board members off-guard at last week's meeting when they entered into a heated back-and-forth about Stewart's recommendation.

At one point, board member Glenton Gilzean asked whether the board should call an emergency workshop to deal with the issue. "Honestly, I'm pretty concerned of the exchange that's going on right now," he said, "and I think if we delay it any longer, what is the impact that is going to have on our student achievement?"

The blow-up marked the first public spat between Stewart and anyone at the district's headquarters. Since becoming superintendent in September for an interim period, Stewart has had smooth relations with a board that was searching for stability after tumultuous experiences with Janssen and Wilcox.

Robinson said he knows how this all looks to those who remember his quarrels with past superintendents.

"I'm the common denominator," he said. "It's natural. I can understand why people would be concerned about that. I can explain it but explanation only goes so far."

Robinson announced his plans to resign three days before he said Stewart informed him of his plan to reorganize the legal office. He said the change had nothing to do with his decision to leave the district more than a year shy of his contract end-date. But Robinson said he did ask Stewart to hold off on any changes until after his departure.

Stewart said he believes now's the time to make the change, when he's reorganizing all the other district departments based on recommendations from an external audit.

"By statute, the superintendent is the chief personnel officer for the district," Stewart told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board last week. "Therefore counsel needs to be given to the superintendent without being fettered by another person's opinion."

But Robinson said the recommendation has numerous implications and seemed to come out of nowhere. The same audit report guiding Stewart praised the way Robinson's office works.

"This isn't taking a line and redirecting it from general counsel to the superintendent," Robinson argued to the board. "It's vastly more complex than that."

Board members directed the two district leaders to work out their differences.

Board member Linda Lerner predicted the conflict "will have a short life."

"I'm sure whatever decision is made, Dr. Stewart and Jim Robinson will move forward," she said.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@tampabay.com.

School district spat has happened before 03/27/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 3:12pm]
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