Looking for its fourth superintendent in eight years, the Pinellas County School Board should not be shy about pursuing an open, vigorous and thorough search that includes courting unconventional candidates. Finding the right person to lead the district after a decade of decline will require looking beyond the familiar confines of other Florida school districts. School leaders also should gather suggestions from the broadest constituencies possible, and those discussions should be public.
The Pinellas Education Foundation ruffled feathers this week when the School Board learned that the nonprofit, business-backed group plans a private meeting with the man hired to conduct the national search. Craig Sher, the foundation's chairman, said the group wants to impress upon Wayne Blanton, the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, the importance of recruiting candidates from across the country. Sher also wants the search to consider noneducators with business experience applicable to running the county's largest employer.
Those are good suggestions, and interest by the high-profile and knowledgeable group should be welcome. This is the same group of business leaders that just two weeks ago produced an impressive set of recommendations to streamline the district's business functions and reallocate millions of dollars that could be spent in the classrooms. Superintendent John Stewart, who is leaving at the end the year, expects to be able to implement many of the foundation's suggestions.
But Sher's plan for the foundation to hold a secret meeting with Blanton is tone deaf. There is no reason School Board members or the public should not attend that meeting, and the foundation's advice ought to be heard by all. A demand for secrecy shifts the focus from the good suggestions the foundation may offer to suspicion about what sort of advice may be privately whispered about how to fill the most public of positions.
Similarly, School Board members should check their own defensiveness about the foundation asserting itself. The board should be seeking suggestions from all corners of the community as it hires its next superintendent. And the issue of who will pay for Blanton's transportation from Tallahassee for the foundation meeting suggests members still may not recognize the need for a rigorous and sophisticated search for the next leader of the 101,000-student district.
Stewart, hired as an interim leader in the wake of Julie Janssen's firing last year, has stabilized the district and is moving it forward. But part of the recipe for Pinellas regaining its luster includes hiring a thoughtful superintendent with superior management skills. That won't happen if School Board members think small or close ranks. This needs to be a community discussion, and that discussion needs to be in public.