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FOR SCHOOLS, IT'S A NEW DAY

The district's grades improved under Wayne Alexander, but staff morale fell.

Wayne Alexander came to Hernando County with a mandate to be a change agent.

Alexander says he believes he was successful during his two-year superintendent tenure, which ended Friday, 10 months early and at the request of the School Board.

Some in the school district agree, saying the district is better off than it was when Alexander arrived from Connecticut in 2007. Others do not.

But most, including Alexander, concur on one point: His first superintendent job was often a rocky and painful ride.

"I think change was a difficult thing for a lot of people, and I think the (School) Board really stuck with me," Alexander said in an interview Wednesday. "But with any change process, people can be disgruntled and unhappy with that."

Several people interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times for this story agreed Alexander had good and intentions that often got lost in his blunt, take-charge management style. It was a sharp contrast to that of his predecessor, Wendy Tellone, who was generally considered to be a consensus builder.

Most acknowledged the district needed a jump-start, a fresh perspective. But by many accounts, Alexander did too much, too fast, before he earned the backing of administrators, teachers and staff.

"We need to have relationships with people before we can effect real change - relationships based on trust and respect for one another," said Joe Clifford, principal at J.D. Floyd K-8 School in Spring Hill. "That has to be done with time and patience."

Alexander managed as though he had little of either, many say.

"He was somewhat of a bull in a china shop," Clifford said.

- - -

Alexander, 48, had more than two decades of experience in education when he arrived in Hernando, the last seven of those years as director of human resources and school operations for the New London Public Schools in Connecticut.

He visited the district before interviewing for the Hernando job and says he remembers a common refrain among school employees.

"We have the haves and the have-nots," Alexander recalls being told. "If you went to the right school, you got the best of everything."

That guided his decision to move forward with new programs in schools that many felt had traditionally been neglected. Moton Elementary, Parrott Middle and Hernando High got journalism programs; Brooksville Elementary got world languages, and Eastside Elementary got technology education. The county's gifted children got a center of their own at the new Explorer K-8.

Not all those programs are fully in place yet, Alexander concedes. But School Board members John Sweeney and Sandra Nicholson call that a successful start.

"We should be able to level the playing field to provide the same level of education in all the schools," Sweeney said. "We're moving toward that. It was something he was passionate about."

Said Nicholson: "I think he really energized people to get headed in that direction to make things better for the other schools."

District grade, budget cuts among positives

Alexander was instrumental in securing laptop computers for staffers, said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association. He deserves credit for moving Hernando toward districtwide accreditation, which will save money and time by replacing the current system of individual school accreditation, Vitalo said.

By all accounts, technology in the classroom has taken a leap forward in the last two years.

But Sweeney and others - including Alexander himself - say he was hamstrung by a grim budget picture that most expected would worsen.

"He had his hands full and tied," Sweeney said.

One area in which Alexander did have a lot of control is staffing, and he used it, shuffling school administration in his first year and again this year.

There will always be grumbling when that happens, Alexander said.

"I think the first year, I put people on the right seats on the bus, allowing them to grow professionally," he said.

His first round of moves was generally seen as good, Vitalo said. Last year, not so much, he said.

The delivery didn't help, he said.

"You can talk with people or at people, and he tended to talk at people," Vitalo said.

Teachers and staffers at Explore K-8, for example, were angered when Alexander did not reappoint Dana Pearce and Sue Roth to their assistant principal positions, while Vivian Sweeney - John Sweeney's wife - stayed. Many teachers called that blatant favoritism, a claim Alexander denied.

Teachers at Nature Coast Technical High School were upset by the decision to move principal Margaret "Tizzy" Schoelles and assistant principal Joy Greene.

Nicholson, however, says Alexander did an excellent job in that area and could have gone further.

"I would have been quite happy with more staffing moves," Nicholson said. "Professionals go where they're needed, not necessarily where they're comfortable."

Ken Pritz, who held a high-level district position when Alexander arrived, said he was happy with the way he ended up as principal at Hernando High. It was a mutual decision, and Pritz, who applied for the superintendent job along with Alexander and plans to apply this time around, got to pick his staff.

"I respected that," he said.

Still, Pritz acknowledges that not everyone was afforded that luxury.

Alexander said the public is often unaware of all the factors that go into a superintendent's decisions.

"You have to have confidence in yourself that those decisions are best for the kids," he said.

He says he's proud that the district earned an A in the state's school grading system last year and barely missed that grade this year.

And he's glad to have helped cut $19 million from the budget during his time here without big impacts to the classroom. He notes that the district's central office, already lean when he arrived, got leaner. For nearly his entire tenure, Alexander worked without an assistant superintendent.

The district, in an independent report by the Florida Education Association based on state data, was ranked at very bottom in administrative spending last year.

"I tried really hard to spend money where the kids are," he said.

But it was budget and staffing recommendations, in fact, that contributed to Alexander's undoing.

Faced with the prospect of a $16 million shortfall, he recommended a host of cuts. The district had launched a plan to downsize, telling about 200 nontenured teachers and support staffers that their positions were being eliminated.

Morale fell to "lowest level in decades"

In April, the teachers union called for the School Board to remove Alexander, less than two years into his tenure, and rescind all teacher nonreappointments pending review by an independent committee. Teachers dressed in black picketed the board meeting, and a union resolution presented to the board said morale among district employees was at its "lowest level in decades due to unnecessary reductions in staffing and blatant favoritism in nonreappointments."

The budget picture brightened some, and the School Board reversed the staffing cuts and put off most of Alexander's budget recommendations. But the damage had been done.

Alexander was already on notice for what some School Board members saw as a breach of contract by not informing the board that he was looking for a new job in New England.

"Last year, he was more interested in searching for jobs up North than focusing on the budget, and he went for a very doom-and-gloom approach that hurt the morale and culture," Vitalo said.

Alexander calls the union's actions "politics in its purest form."

He points out that he pushed for raises for teachers this year and the board approved a 2.3 increase and a reduction in the number of pay "steps."

Hernando was one of only a few districts in the state that managed raises for teachers. Out-of-pocket insurance costs have remained relatively low, Alexander said.

"I'm proud of what we did for the teachers union," he said.

Family issues turned attention elsewhere

Alexander married last year. The plan was to bring his wife and her two young children, who live in Connecticut, to Florida. But a child visitation dispute between his wife and her ex-husband foiled those plans.

Alexander started looking for jobs in the fall and made it as a finalist for at least one position. Former board member Jim Malcolm, in office at that time, remains convinced Alexander breached his contract.

Now, in hindsight, Malcolm contends: "I think he would have been better off saying, 'This isn't working for me,' and leaving in November."

Of all those interviewed, Malcolm was the most disappointed with Alexander. Malcolm had picked Alexander as his first choice for the job. He was delighted when the board's first pick fell through.

But Malcolm said he was shocked when Alexander last year asked for a nearly 14 percent pay raise on top of his $119,000 annual salary. He eventually got 5.5 percent.

Malcolm says he told Alexander his continued use of the phrase "have and have-nots" to describe schools was too divisive, and he warned him about what Malcolm called his my-way-or-the-highway approach to management.

"Let's face it, the man was a polarizing figure," Malcolm said. "If I had to do it all over again, I would not have made that choice. There's going to be a lot of healing going on."

Alexander himself has acknowledged he can be too direct and can come across as arrogant. Sweeney said Alexander could have done a better job communicating with the press.

Alexander maintains the media were aggressive, focusing on what he considered to be non-stories and invading his privacy.

"God knows with my particular personal life, it created a great deal of opportunity to write about it frequently," he said.

He wanted out, then back in, then ...

Caught between his job in Florida and family in Connecticut, Alexander resigned in February. A few days later, he said he'd made a mistake and wanted to honor his contract, which was set to expire in June 2010. Later, he added the caveat that he would stay until then or until a successor was in place.

Then, Alexander angered board members again in April when they discovered he was once again a finalist for a New England superintendent post. Board members Pat Fagan and James Yant said the time had come to part ways. Alexander was too distracted, they said, to effectively lead.

Last month, the rest of the board agreed and voted to take advantage of a clause in Alexander's contract to part ways and give him 30 days of additional pay and benefits.

"There was too much mayhem," said Nicholson, who'd been one of Alexander's staunchest supporters.

Alexander acknowledges that he should have been better about "putting more things in writing" for the board. But he continues to refute the notion he was distracted and says he didn't deserve to be shown the door.

"I may have looked for another job to unite with my family, but I never stopped working to give my heart and soul to do the best I can. I never stopped wanting to stay here," he said. "The board is a bunch of caring individuals that have tremendous political pressures from all directions. I don't like the way the exit was handled, but they did what they thought was best."

He says he's disappointed he won't get to follow through with the changes he made here. By the fifth year, he says, his work would have started to really bear fruit.

Despite the pain, some say both the district and Alexander should make the most of the last two years.

"We need to make sure that we as a community learn and grow, that we don't harbor any resentments and rediscover our strengths," said Clifford, the principal at J.D. Floyd.

"I feel like he'll take a lot of the things he learned here and down the line, believe it or not, will be a good superintendent," Vitalo said. "In education, not only do we teach, we also learn, and Dr. Alexander learned a lot in Hernando County."

A superintendent position may not be in Alexander's immediate future, though.

Rumors floated last week that Alexander already has a job. He wouldn't say. But the former special education teacher said he is feeling drawn back to the classroom. He said a superintendent post probably isn't a great idea for a father of two young stepchildren.

"It's difficult for the best superintendent to balance their personal life and their professional obligations," he said. "It's all-consuming, 24/7."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Up next:GAME FACES

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