For all the talk about reforming education, little improves in public schools without strong leadership. The Pinellas County School Board has raised its bet on superintendent Mike Grego, voting unanimously to extend his contract through 2020 after just 21 months on the job. That sends a message of stability for district employees and schools that have struggled to improve amid turnover at the top. But many challenges remain for Grego and the School Board. Pinellas schools have stabilized, but they still have a long way to go.
By almost any measure, Grego has been an improvement over the district's two previous, permanent superintendents. A longtime educator whose first foray into education administration came in Hillsborough County, Grego was hired by Pinellas a year after the district fired veteran Pinellas educator Julie Janssen after three tumultuous years. She had succeeded Clayton Wilcox, a controversial leader who had resigned after less than four years. Such turnover rocked a district that had enjoyed 14 years of steady leadership from Howard Hinesley and nearly 10 years before that from the late Scott Rose.
Grego has shown a welcome penchant for moving quickly to address festering problems. In less than two years, he has implemented several programs — including Summer Bridge, a six-week enrichment program, and Promise Time, which extends the school day — that have the potential to improve performance among struggling students. He has reopened two shuttered elementary schools in an effort to compete with charter and private schools, and he is open to offering more career education. He invested more in teachers despite flat enrollment, tight budgets and inconsistent leadership from the state. He pushed to increase the district's starting pay to $40,000 and advocated for a more rational merit pay plan. And board members credit his leadership with helping restore civility and cooperation among themselves.
As Grego focused his efforts internally on a district that was badly fractured, he sometimes fell short on external relations. An ongoing revamp of the special education program, for example, failed to properly communicate with the families that would be most directly affected. More openness and better community outreach would be a better approach.
Grego's biggest challenge remains turning around Pinellas' lowest-performing schools, many of which are in the high-poverty neighborhoods of south St. Petersburg. Even as he has shuffled staff and implemented new teaching strategies, he should do more to encourage and invite community investment.
Grego's contract extension did not include a salary increase, and state law now caps severance packages. So this largely amounts to a strong vote of confidence from the School Board, where five seats are up for election in November.
The board members have tied the district to Grego for the next six years. Now they should ensure that the improvements Grego has delivered so far are just the beginning of stronger and better public schools for Pinellas County.