Much is at stake today as the Pinellas County School Board conducts public interviews of three finalists for superintendent. Pinellas schools, long a source of community pride, are struggling and hungry for a strong long-term leader. The candidates are not particularly impressive on paper, and board members should question them closely to determine if any of them measures up or if the search process should start over. This is a decision far too important to the county's future to settle for less than excellence.
If nothing else, the three candidates — Mike Grego, Constance "Connie" Jones and Christian "Chris" Cutter — haven't shied away from seeking what will be one tough job, even after the steadying hand of superintendent John Stewart. He is a retired educator drafted after last year's firing of Julie Janssen, whose chaotic leadership only contributed to the district's fading luster. The new superintendent will assume control amid significant changes mandated by the Legislature, including a new teacher merit pay plan and end-of-course tests in 2013-14. There's growing public anger over the use of standardized tests as well as increasing demands for more fundamental schools in the district.
The School Board itself could look significantly different after the November election. Two incumbents, Janet Clark and Glen Gilzean, each face a runoff. But today, board members should ask the candidates how they would improve student achievement, cope with chronic funding cuts, and manage the county's top employer. Specifically:
• Pinellas is losing ground academically compared with other large districts and is doing a worse job closing the achievement gap between white and minority students. How would a new superintendent raise student achievement?
• Declining enrollment means the district is getting a smaller share of the diminished money from Tallahassee. What would they anticipate cutting or changing to save money?
• Pinellas school employees have been whipsawed by constant cuts and even less financial reward. Teachers find their work more prescribed than ever by lawmakers in Tallahassee. How would they reinvigorate the workforce, attract the best teachers and keep student achievement at the fore?
• How is their experience relevant? Grego left the superintendent's job in Osceola County after clashes with the board. Jones, a chief academic officer in Lee County schools, was passed over for the superintendent's job there. Why should Pinellas take a gamble on either? Cutter should explain how his assistant superintendent experience in a smaller and less diverse Colorado district and his role in trying to implement private school vouchers translates into running a 101,000-student district here.
The School Board can't afford to get this decision wrong. The first step toward getting it right is a vigorous and thorough vetting of these three candidates.