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Dysfunction reigns at retreat

It was billed as a two-day "retreat" for the Pinellas School Board and its new superintendent _ a time for reflection, sharing, high-minded goals, a fresh start.

A consultant would guide the discussion in a cozy boardroom atop the Radisson Hotel & Suites on Roosevelt Boulevard. Waiters would serve sandwiches, cookies and iced tea. Pressured public officials could be at ease in jeans and sandals.

Collegiality would reign.

What transpired was a roller coaster of emotion as board members mapped out an ambitious agenda for incoming superintendent Clayton Wilcox but also sharply confronted each other over long-simmering feuds that have impeded their work for two years.

The result was a manic whipsawing of moods over 16 hours, from tension to giddy laughter to frustration and back again. Board members tugged at each other over what the district's goals should be, got sidetracked for 40 minutes at a time and Thursday morning engaged in a bitter personal exchange that pitted five board members against board member Mary Russell.

By the end of the first day, consultant Bill Attea hastily organized a wine and cheese get-together, saying board members might do better if they knew each other "as human beings."

During an upbeat moment at lunch Thursday, Wilcox told the group they were simply undergoing a process of "storming, forming and norming" that occurs with many boards.

"There are going to be times when things aren't as pleasant as you'd like," said Wilcox, who takes over for the retiring Howard Hinesley on Nov. 1.

Throughout the retreat, the new superintendent proved to be a leveling force _ playing administrator, mediator and psychoanalyst for an elected board that freely admits its dysfunction.

Another newcomer, board member-elect Janet Clark, played a similar role, generally staying above the fray.

"It's very frustrating," she said after one of many tart exchanges. "It sounds like personal attacks, and I don't appreciate it."

Clark will take office in November after her upset victory over board member Lee Benjamin in the Aug. 31 primary. Benjamin did not attend the retreat.

By late Thursday afternoon, board members adjourned with a tentative set of goals for Wilcox, a general truce and a consensus that their catharsis _ as ugly as it was _ will help them better manage a huge public enterprise with 15,000 employees and more than 110,000 students.

Wilcox's preliminary goals will be to: assemble a new department to help the district communicate better internally and with the public; review how the district's administration is organized and suggest changes; review and possibly revise the curriculum; recruit a new management team "with an eye toward diversity;" and improve the school choice plan.

Wilcox also will work on a number of other issues, including the achievement gap between black and white students and the sagging graduation rate. He plans to take a look at middle and high schools, many of which are struggling with student performance.

Wilcox also outlined his management style.

"I think Dr. Hinesley is an outstanding man and a great leader, but he and I are not the same person," he said, promising to work gradually.

"I believe in evolutionary change, not revolutionary change," he said.

He said he would keep board members informed at virtually every turn and suggested that they hold fewer meetings. He cautioned the board against constantly revisiting issues and working behind the scenes when they don't get their way at the board table.

"That would be horrible and probably wouldn't bode well for my tenure here," he told the board.

The bickering erupted Thursday morning around Mary Russell, who has said other board members have slighted her, said "evil things" about her behind her back, held her to rules that don't exist and shot down her ideas before she fully airs them.

Board members Linda Lerner, Mary Brown, Nancy Bostock, Jane Gallucci and Carol Cook countered, saying Russell perceives slights that don't exist or aren't intentional. Rather than being "shot down," they said, many of Russell's ideas simply die for lack of support from the board majority. They said they give her every opportunity to air her ideas.

Tensions between Russell and the other board members have been building since she took office in November 2002. But they hit a bump in May after Russell became embroiled in a dispute with the board's administrative assistant, Deborah Beaty, over a travel expense form. Other board members have supported Beaty.

One exchange Thursday went like this:

"I don't want to argue with you," Russell said. "I just don't want my ideas pooh-poohed all the time."

Wilcox called for a truce, but board members said they needed to have it out.

Brown said Russell behaved as if hers were the only views that mattered.

Clark said Brown sounded like a parent lecturing Russell.

Gallucci said Russell did not respect her experience on the board.

Russell relented and called for a cease-fire, saying, "It's buried. It's gone. It's done." Still, the argument flared up later.

As the day ended, a weary Attea encouraged the board to laugh more.

He said: "This group likes to talk a lot, and that's good. But talking isn't communicating."

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