No one predicted it would turn out this well. When John Stewart was abruptly hired last year in the wake of the firing of Pinellas school superintendent Julie Janssen, two of the seven School Board members felt it was too fast for a district in such upheaval. But there's little question today — Stewart's last as the district's interim superintendent. Stewart stabilized the district and moved it forward. He has provided an extraordinary service for Pinellas County.
There's nothing flashy about the retired Polk County superintendent who spent part of his career in Pinellas County. And perhaps that is just what Pinellas County needed after the debacle of Janssen's tenure and the relatively short tenure of Clayton Wilcox. A plainspoken gentleman, Stewart exudes a quiet confidence and authority. He keeps his rhetoric simple, saying all Pinellas' decisions should be made with the goal of ensuring students are reading and performing math at grade level and learning civility. And in 13 months, he compiled an impressive list of accomplishments toward that end.
Stewart championed a controversial audit that ultimately found the district was top-heavy and needed to adapt in an era with stagnant enrollment and state funding. He reorganized the district leadership; improved internal and external communication; and embraced cost-saving measures, including at least some of those offered by the Pinellas Education Foundation. He negotiated with the teachers union to save money on the district's health care plans, to provide teachers with a small raise starting in November and to put an end to the early-release Wednesdays in 2013-14 that parents disliked. And he has pushed for the district to take on the federal Head Start program in hopes of improving early childhood education for the county's poorest children.
But Stewart's biggest contribution to Pinellas County is this: His no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is leadership style provided momentum for a long-needed culture shift. There is now wide understanding that the once-proud Pinellas district has lost some of its luster and needs to be creative and inventive to regain it in an era of diminished resources. That will make new superintendent Mike Grego's job infinitely easier.
Not surprisingly, Stewart, 68, deflected compliments Monday, crediting the School Board and employees, and saying he was proudest of how everyone has "pitched in to participate and do the right thing" for students. But he led the charge, and Pinellas County's students and taxpayers are better for it.