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Audit shows organizational weaknesses in top-heavy Pinellas schools

Published Feb. 25, 2012

A top-heavy administration. Too many schools and not enough students. A lack of communication. And a culture of conflict, competition and confusion that fails to give schools the clear and timely support they need.

The Pinellas County School District is suffering from the perception of "faded glory," according to a sweeping audit released Friday that evaluated everything from staffing to support for schools to strategic planning.

In hopes of identifying ways to be more efficient, superintendent John Stewart commissioned the study shortly after he was hired last year. Stewart came into the district after the tumultuous tenure and departure of Julie Janssen.

"It's imperative for an organization as large as ours to periodically take a good hard look at itself to determine if its procedures are aligned to its goals," Stewart said. The problems highlighted in the report have left the school district's workforce "dispirited and discouraged," he said.

The Pinellas School Board will hold a special workshop at 9 a.m. Monday to discuss the audit, which was done by the Florida Association of District School Superintendents and cost the district $20,000.

Board members reached Friday said they hadn't yet read the full report, but Chairwoman Robin Wikle said she was "thrilled beyond words" just to receive it. "The sooner that we start solving any administrative issues, the better."

Among the findings in the 127-page audit:

• Pinellas County has a higher ratio of administrators to employees than five of seven comparative districts — Brevard, Duval, Hillsborough, Lee, Orange, Palm Beach and Polk — and has 112 more total administrators than Polk, the district with the most similar student population. And Pinellas leaders often operate in silos and duplicate work.

• By the start of the 2012-13 school year, Pinellas County is projected to have 27,000 unoccupied student stations — equivalent to about eight high schools — due in part to declining enrollment and a number of portable classrooms the auditors described as "excessive."

• Though 86 district and school-level administrators — 16 percent of the entire administrative staff — are enrolled in the state's deferred retirement option program, Pinellas County has no plan in place for how to replace those people with qualified talent.

• Job descriptions are inaccurate and incomplete, and some appear to have been created to fit specific candidates' credentials.

• Communication is problematic throughout the organization, but particularly troublesome are the Exceptional Student Education and Transportation departments, where school-based administrators and others report regular issues reaching people.

The study made numerous recommendations, not the least of which is a complete reorganization of the top level administration. That includes changing the superintendent's cabinet, overhauling the entire curriculum and instruction department and eliminating the position of deputy superintendent.

Jim Madden, who been second-in-command since Janssen's administration, has already announced he will retire in October.

The proposed wide-ranging overhaul made it difficult to determine the exact number of administrative positions the study was recommending be cut, but Stewart believed it was six.

A Tampa Bay Times analysis in 2009 found that Pinellas devotes a larger percentage of its operating budget to administration than most or all of its peers.

The 101,000-student district also needs to assemble a task force to come up with a five-year plan for more school closures and consolidations, the report says. The district has lost about 13,000 students since 2003-04 and has already closed 13 schools.

"Surplus classrooms located in active school buildings must be maintained, cooled and heated, insured and cleaned," the report says. "Elimination of these costs means resources can be directed to teaching and learning."

And while the report points out the major cuts the district has made to transportation in recent years — from 741 routes in 2005-06 to 486 in 2011-12 — the study recommends even more.

How?

By, the report says, "reducing the number of students transported out of zone due to magnet schools, special programs, transfers or alternative schools."

Other suggestions include re-examining parts of the salary schedule that contribute to pay inequities, developing a staffing plan to ensure schools are staffed more equitably and leaving new programs in place at least three years before changing them out with something new.

The study did credit Stewart and the board for what appears to be a good working relationship. And all the board members told the auditor they believed Stewart's recent restructuring of the communications staff was a positive step.

But with voters headed to the polls Nov. 6 to decide whether to renew a $30 million tax increase for Pinellas schools, school leaders are slightly on edge. The district has been in the spotlight a lot over the last few years due to leadership struggles and program changes.

"Our workforce is dispirited and discouraged for a number of reasons," Stewart said. "It is within our power to address many of their concerns and I intend to do that based on the results of the study and with the support of our School Board."

Times staff writer Kameel Stanley contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@tampabay.com.

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