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A Times Editorial

School search can't settle for second best

It takes only one well-qualified candidate who agrees to take the job to declare the Pinellas County School Board's search for a new superintendent a success. But the odds of that happening, now that the pool of 50 candidates has been made public, look increasingly slim. The job leading the county's public schools is far too important to settle for second best. If the School Board cannot find a hidden diamond in this list of retreads and damaged goods, it should start over with a more vigorous national search.

Compared with other districts in Florida that recently conducted searches, Pinellas' superintendent search lacks a wow factor. That's what happens when a search is done on the cheap by a Florida insider. Unlike recent searches in Broward and Orange counties that drew multiple candidates from major urban school districts outside Florida, there is just one of these in the Pinellas pool. And only a dozen applicants even have five or more years experience in districts larger than 25,000 students. Pinellas County has 104,000 students, making it the seventh-largest district in Florida and the 26th nationwide.

Eight current or former superintendents have applied. But the four from Florida have less than impressive track records. As the Tampa Bay Times' Cara Fitzpatrick recently reported, two were voted out by their school boards, one was forced to retire and one quit.

The School Board, at superintendent John Stewart's recommendation, opted to hire Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, to conduct the district's search. Blanton also conducted a 2008 search. How much of an effort he made to find top-drawer candidates, beyond advertising, isn't clear, but results in other Florida districts — including the Orange County search that Blanton also ran — suggest the pool is not nearly as skilled as it should have been.

Other factors may be at play, which is why ensuring a strong performance by a search firm is all the more important. Pinellas County is the last of seven major districts in Florida to begin its superintendent search in recent months. The lack of financial commitment to public schools in Tallahassee in the past two years doesn't help attract top-drawer candidates from out of state. And Pinellas, unlike some other Florida districts, has more serious fiscal issues because in a growing state it is one of the few districts that is not adding students.

Candidates also were applying to a district in an election year when two School Board incumbents face serious challengers. If this search process is completed, the winning candidate may be reporting to a School Board with a significantly different tenor than the one that made the hire.

School Board members, scheduled to discuss the applicants Tuesday, should proceed with caution and make sure they get it right. The Pinellas school district is the largest employer in the county, and its performance has long-term implications not just for individual students but for the entire county economy. Pinellas has an opportunity now to chart a brighter future by finding the right leader. If that person isn't in this pool, the board should regroup and try again.

School search can't settle for second best 07/13/12 [Last modified: Friday, July 13, 2012 5:33pm]
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