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Schools chief coy on retirement plans

Pasco County Schools superintendent John Long could announce as early as next week that he will retire after years of running one of Florida's fastest-growing school systems.

But Long, 56, said he still needs to sleep on the idea before announcing whether he will run for re-election in 2004.

"I'm in the process of trying to make up my mind. I may decide in the next couple of weeks." Long said Wednesday.

Nevertheless, Long has summoned principals and administrators to a meeting Tuesday at Denham Oaks Elementary School. Such meetings are rare at this point in the school year and portend big news.

Asked whether he will discuss retirement at the meeting, Long said, "I might, but right now that's not in my plans."

His decades of service in the state school system would earn him retirement benefits equal to about half of his $141,000 annual salary.

Long assumed the job from retiring superintendent Thomas Weightman in August 1996. Before that he spent a decade in the state House of Representatives as a Democrat representing Land O'Lakes and 20 years as an assistant superintendent.

He oversees a school district that has seen its enrollment mushroom as home buyers flock to suburbs such as Trinity, Wesley Chapel and Land O'Lakes.

In Long's seven years as superintendent, Pasco's student population has grown nearly 30 percent, from 40,315 to 52,218. Eleven schools have opened under his tenure, for a total of 57. He oversees about 7,000 employees.

Long said being superintendent is almost a seven-day-a-week job. And it isn't getting any easier.

In addition to the struggle to find money to house and teach the flood of new students, the district is under pressure to reduce class sizes. Voters approved a class size reduction referendum in November.

Working in favor of his staying on the job, Long cited the expense of schooling his daughter. "If my daughter wasn't in college I'd probably hand the job up in a heartbeat," he said.

The Land O'Lakes resident said work possibilities after leaving Pasco schools include teaching at a university. Long already teaches a once-a-week class on school finance at the University of South Florida.

Since money matters will absorb much of a future superintendent's time, Chuck Rushe, the district's chief financial officer, is a possible candidate to succeed Long.

Rushe is considered Long's right-hand man, and previous Pasco superintendents were often nominated based on their close associations with their predecessors.

By anointing Rushe or someone else as his favorite, Long could help suppress divisive political infighting that marked part of Weightman's 22-year tenure as superintendent.

Two Pasco principals, Ray Stewart and Coy Pigman, vied with Weightman for the job in two different elections.

"I have a great job. I love what I do. I think I can be re-elected fairly easily," Long said. "It's hard to walk away."