The disappointing results of a routine auction by Pinellas County Public Schools smacks of government by rote, with the school district staff content with doing things as the district has always done them. That tired mind-set simply can't continue in a school district where both student performance and fiscal resources are down. The auction tale is another reminder why the School Board needs to search far and wide for a new superintendent who is both conversant in academic issues and astute in efficiently managing large bureaucracies.
The hero of this story is pawnshop owner Tim Russell, who called the Tampa Bay Times after being shocked by the incredibly good deals he got on used classroom equipment at the school district's annual auction in April. He told Times reporter Rebecca Catalanello he's convinced the district is losing out on recouping hundreds of thousands of dollars on its surplus equipment. Harrow's Auctions in Tampa — the company that has conducted the auctions for 20 years — frequently seemed to cut the bidding short, Russell said, and refused to split lots. The $206,906 the district made should have been at least twice that, estimates Russell, who expects to triple his investment at the auction of less than $900.
To his credit, superintendent John Stewart, hired last year in the wake of the firing of Julie Janssen, has already responded. On Monday he met with his staff to craft a new equipment disposal process that he will present today to the School Board. Among the recommendations: Several individuals within and outside the district will consult on the best way to maximize the return on specific unneeded equipment.
That same sensibility to get the best bang for every taxpayer buck needs to spread throughout a school district whose trajectory has rapidly shifted. After decades of growth, enrollment is shrinking, leaving a district needing to shed not just surplus equipment but real estate. And it needs to constantly evaluate whether it's spending money where it's needed, versus where it always has.
That's a big order for the next superintendent but a vital one. Every dollar saved means more for classrooms and the teachers who work there. Stewart is helping to set the stage for just such a superintendent, but it's up to the School Board to find the best person to assume that role long term.