1. Archive

Hiding from the truth // THE ISSUE

If Pinellas School Board members follow their past practice, Susan Latvala will be ostracized this week. They will attack their board colleague, question her motives, and insist the school system can operate only when it is generating positive publicity.

But the issue Latvala has raised _ whether Superintendent Howard Hinesley is effectively leading Pinellas schools _ is a real one. Board members can shoot the messenger if they like, but the message will remain.

The fact is that the School Board is splintered, the school system has been entangled in a string of educational controversies, many people within the community are unhappy with and distrustful of school officials, and Hinesley himself appears to contribute to the friction among board members. (Is it merely coincidence that the superintendent has such a personal relationship with the board members who support him? Is it professionally appropriate for him to isolate the ones, such as Latvala, who have questioned him?)

Little more than a year ago, some board members talked openly to a newspaper reporter about Hinesley. Said one: "Is there a crisis in leadership? Yes." Said another: "I'm very disillusioned. . . . It's very difficult to lead without a vision." Said another: "I'm not a happy camper right now." Said another: "Howard doesn't have a vision. . . . He's not a leader."

In truth, not much has changed in that year. The board continues to reject its superintendent's recommendations with troubling frequency. Board members asked him for an educator's professional opinion on sex education issues in middle school, and he instead recommended a poll. They asked him for options with the Palm Harbor University High School rezoning, and what they got were angry parents. They found themselves confronted by angry community groups on discipline policies and budget cuts, with recommendations that could have used more homework before being presented. They now face public anger over the secrecy Hinesley has supported in dealing with possible changes to the federal desegregation court order.

One of the common threads is Hinesley's apparent inability to listen to good advice. He tends to shut out community groups or differing opinions. When Marilyn Brown, the public information officer he hired, tried to speak candidly to board members about negative publicity, Hinesley buried her memorandum and later abolished her position. When a state representative questioned the quality of writing in letters from students at a north-county middle school, one of Hinesley's initial responses was to determine how the letters got out. When Latvala began to challenge his actions, he quit responding to her requests for information.

But the School Board can't afford to continue playing a game of denial. There are problems in the Pinellas district that will improve only through honest examination, and the board needs to summon the strength to deal with them instead of worrying about publicity.