Editor's note: The Pinellas schools superintendent responds to Sunday's editorial, "Strong leadership too often missing."
When I became superintendent of Pinellas County schools in 2008, our district faced a number of major challenges that demanded action and innovative solutions. My leadership team and I, along with thousands of dedicated employees, have addressed these issues head-on while staying focused on our vision of 100 percent student success. We are working to ensure our students achieve to the best of their abilities, addressing student discipline issues, and balancing the budget during the worst economic climate in a generation.
We have tackled budget shortfalls by closing and consolidating schools and have cut the budget by $104 million over the last four years. These were not easy decisions, but ones that were needed in these tough times. As superintendent, I successfully negotiated a two-year contract with our teachers for the first time in district history while minimizing the loss of jobs.
I have addressed the long-standing Bradley vs. Board of Education lawsuit through mediation resulting in a Memorandum of Understanding regarding student achievement.
Additionally, a second Memorandum of Understanding on student discipline will be discussed at a school board workshop today and presented for formal approval at a future board meeting.
Everyone agrees that an excellent teacher is key for student success. To that end, I have engaged in partnerships with the University of Florida and the Lastinger Center to provide embedded professional development for elementary teachers in a "Master Teacher" program, with plans for expansion into three high schools and three middle schools in the fall. This partnership has given elementary teachers an opportunity to earn a master's degree from UF at no cost to them. An additional 100 master degree opportunities will be available to secondary teachers through this partnership.
My administration is keenly focused on improving student performance in science, mathematics, engineering and technology. Through a partnership with Stanford Research Institute and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, and a generous grant from the Helios Foundation, 15 middle school math teachers in seven middle schools have delivered hands-on digital learning to our students through the Sun Bay math project. Because of the success of this program, we have submitted a $10 million grant application to completely redesign mathematics in our middle schools.
We are also implementing a different model for school leadership called decentralized decisionmaking. Nearly 30 school principals have undergone a series of workshops on this topic — preparing them to better address the unique needs of their students and their schools.
Looking into the future, more bold action is on the horizon for Pinellas County schools. To better address the needs of low socioeconomic students, I have proposed, for the first time ever, that Title I federal funds will be available to all K-12 students who qualify. This infusion of additional funding will help address the challenges at some of our lower performing schools.
To further provide support to all schools, we are creating a new "cluster" model so that students and their families can follow a predictable pattern of schools from kindergarten through graduation. As part of this model, I am recommending the redesign of regional offices to improve communications and ensure resources are focused on improved student performance.
Now more than ever, we are reaching out to the community and asking them to join us in the education of our students. This outreach has been tremendously successful, and it will continue through the department of strategic partnerships. In the next few weeks, I will invite key leaders to form additional partnerships for a cluster of schools.
While I am extremely proud of these innovative actions, I am taking on these changes with a watchful eye on the budget. Every investment we make, as well as every department, system, program and process, is being evaluated to make sure district money is being spent wisely and is helping our students learn.
I knew the job of superintendent would be difficult and that making changes in a district of this magnitude would require a steadfast, long-range approach. Moving forward, I will continue to meet challenges hand-in-hand with parents, families, community members and teachers to make sure our children in Pinellas County get the superior education they deserve.