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Schools chief pledges change

Four weeks before he gets the keys to the Pinellas school system, incoming superintendent Clayton Wilcox went public Tuesday with his plans for marked change.

He pledged at a high-profile luncheon to simplify the way parents pick schools under the choice system, to work to prevent schools from becoming resegregated and to take strong steps to narrow gaps in achievement between students of different races and incomes.

In what could be a surprise for insiders at the district's Largo headquarters, he also said the district appears to have too many administrators. He left open the possibility that tough financial times could force the district to cut costs by hiring private companies for "support" jobs that don't directly involve teaching children.

In addition, Wilcox roundly endorsed the Nov. 2 ballot measure asking Pinellas voters to approve a property tax increase for teacher raises and selected programs. In doing so, he emerged as the loudest cheerleader so far in a campaign that has yet to find its voice.

He also made clear that he supports standardized testing as "the wave of the future" and embraces the controversial No Child Left Behind Act signed by President Bush in 2002.

"I don't see how anybody can be against the mantra of leaving no child behind," Wilcox said. "I would ask any of you who said it can't work to tell me which kid it can't work for."

He spoke to about 125 members and guests of the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, and to a Bay News 9 television audience watching live.

Wilcox's stance is sure to spark change in a district that has carried out state testing mandates and followed the federal law in a spirit of grudging acceptance. But change is what the School Board wanted when it hired the 49-year-old away from the Baton Rouge, La., school system, making him the first superintendent from outside the county in 32 years.

Not all of his remarks put him in the same camp with Gov. Jeb Bush, whose education program is based on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Wilcox said the Republican governor and Legislature have consistently underfunded public education, a charge that brought vigorous applause. He called on Bush not to ruin his "investment" in Florida's children.

Wilcox's speech came at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, where Tiger Bay members clapped and laughed at his jokes but also showed why they are known for treating guests to barbed questions.

One member asked Wilcox to name the biggest mistake by Howard Hinesley, the retiring superintendent who leaves Nov. 1 after 14 years. Wilcox, who is working with Hinesley during a two-month transition, said the district may have erred when it agreed in federal court to the choice plan instead of securing a no-strings deal to end court-ordered busing.

He added the caveat that he wasn't in Pinellas at the time and didn't know the dynamics driving the issue. But he delivered his answer directly and with a pointed rejoinder: "You thought I'd dance" around the question.

Regarding the tax referendum, he said the district had been good with the public's money and now it needed more. He invited questions about any expenditure.

"You can't afford to have teachers who are not feeling that they are supported, who don't feel that this community is behind them," Wilcox said. "We have to say loudly, clearly and proudly that we support them and that locally . . . we're going to step up for our own."

The way to keep schools integrated after the choice plan eliminates race ratios in 2007 is to "make sure that some of the schools of this community have draws that are so compelling that families simply can't afford to miss them," he said.

Asked whether he would privatize some functions of the school district, a controversial step he took during a budget crisis in Baton Rouge, Wilcox answered that "nothing's off the table."

But he said other cuts would come first. Higher on his list would be district headquarters, where "quite honestly, there are an awful lot of folks right now serving this district administratively," he said.

Having struggled through the choice system to get his two children into Pinellas Schools, Wilcox said he has plans to refine it.

"I think it treats folks who move to this community late unfairly," he said. "I don't think that it's enough simply to say to families that you can go sign up and hopefully you'll get your first, second or third choice."

His biggest task, he said, will be to narrow the gap in achievement between students who are black and white, poor and middle class. One way is to get the district's best teachers into its most challenging urban schools, he said.

Another is to build early support for children whose families don't ready them for school.

"Unfortunately, today we've taken a mentality across this country that says we're going to wait and let kids fail, then we'll see if we can help them," Wilcox said. "That's absolutely the wrong way to go about this."