The first step toward fixing a serious problem is admitting one exists. After years of denial, the Pinellas County School District has finally begun to face reality that it has fallen behind other big Florida counties in many areas. School Board members said the right things this week about committing to change, but their actions will speak louder.
A sobering audit by the Florida Association of District School Superintendents describes a school district in decline whose revolving leaders have failed for years to address problems that are familiar to anyone paying attention: a top-heavy administration; declining student enrollment resulting in too many empty seats at schools; wasteful busing; poor communication; and departments working in "silos" worried about turf in an atmosphere where "some departments appear to be overstaffed, yet they perceived that they are understaffed." This is a school system that doesn't need tweaking; it needs an overhaul.
Credit superintendent John Stewart for seeking the audit and for bringing it to the School Board for discussion quickly. Now the superintendent and the board must act decisively to solve problems that have festered for years. In an era of declining revenue and enrollment, there is no time to waste. Voters in November will be asked to renew a half-mill property tax that helps pay for teacher salaries, technology, and the music and art programs. That will be a hard sell unless the district shows itself to be quickly righting its course.
Here are some of the key places to start the repair work:
• The administration is top-heavy and should be downsized and restructured — with jobs actually eliminated and some reassignments, if appropriate, at lower pay — to create clear lines of communication between school principals and the superintendent.
• School enrollment has declined by nearly 10 percent in the past decade to roughly 100,000 students, yet the district is still using portable classrooms that can hold 7,700 students. There must be an aggressive plan to eliminate portables and to close more schools. A private company that failed to respond to changing conditions so badly would be out of business.
• The district still spends far too much on an inefficient busing system. As fuel costs rise and the district is strapped for cash, changes have to be made regardless of the politics.
• The district must better match programs with demand. Pinellas takes pride in its magnet and fundamental schools and in its career academies, yet there are far too few seats in some magnets and fundamentals to accommodate the number of students who wish to attend them. The district should expand popular, successful programs to let in more students while whittling down or closing those where supply exceeds demand.
So far, Stewart has hit the right notes in commissioning this report and dealing with its implications honestly. Now he and the School Board have the hard work ahead of them: setting right a district that has spent years drifting off course.