Pinellas County Schools are at a crossroad. A decade of denial has finally given way to the realization that the district's glory has faded in an era of weak leadership, declining enrollments and less money. And an illuminating audit has validated long-heard criticisms of a bloated administration. Now the School Board's challenge is to avoid thinking small when it needs to think big. The pending departure of short-time superintendent John Stewart calls for a thorough, nationwide search without shortcuts or preconceived notions.
School Board members are fortunate that Stewart has given them nine months' notice. In his seven months on the job since succeeding Julie Janssen, Stewart has stabilized the district and helped it address two sobering realities: Its administration has failed to shrink along with its declining enrollment, and its students aren't improving as fast as in other major Florida districts. Stewart is still refining his response — including reorganizing the administration and trying to instill a culture that puts students' proficiency in reading and math at the center of every decision.
In times of such change and ambition, it can be tempting to seek comfort in familiar faces. That seemed to be the undercurrent last week as five of seven board members, along with Stewart and board attorney Jim Robinson, supported hiring a Florida insider, Wayne Blanton of the Florida School Board Association, to conduct the board's search for Stewart's successor. Blanton was involved in the 2008 search that led the board to promote Janssen to the superintendent's job after the first choice rejected the offer. He also played a role in identifying Stewart, a retired Polk County school administrator, when the board let Janssen go last year.
Board members suggested part of the reason is cost — the 2008 search by Blanton cost $11,446, significantly less than the $62,435 search conducted by a national headhunting firm in 2004. But in a district with a budget of more than $835 million and more than 100,000 students, the cost difference is not a reasonable justification, especially when the stakes are so high.
Stewart's continued success — and the public's confidence that the board can find a replacement to build on his work — will play a major role in determining whether voters in November approve an extension of the district's optional property tax for enhancing teacher salaries, technology and music and art programs. Thinking small won't help that campaign at all.
Whomever the board hires to lead the search, the directive should be clear that the effort must be national and thorough. The best headhunters don't wait for candidates to apply but seek them out. Stewart estimates there are no more than 75 educators in the country with the kind of resume needed to effectively lead the nation's 27th largest school district.
The worst thing the Pinellas School Board can do now is limit its vision. The board's goal should be to search far and wide to find the best candidate with the passion, track record and ideas. A cheap search is unlikely to get them there. They need to spend the money to get the candidate this community and students deserve.