Public school parents and teachers in Pinellas County did not hold back.
Surveyed as the district picks its next superintendent, they alternately praised and trashed the schools and their leaders.
They called for an end to masks and they urged a return to masks. They rejected school discussions about race and LGBTQ issues, and they begged school leaders to be sensitive to minorities.
A 144-page survey report obtained by the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday was taken up mostly by these free-form, anonymous statements that were caustic at times, and pointed to deep divisions.
To some residents, retiring superintendent Mike Grego is a hero. The phrase “big shoes to fill” appeared at least a dozen times.
To others, Grego cared too much about pleasing the Republican establishment to stand up for science and public health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those more critical of Grego called for an outsider to replace him when he leaves at the end of this school year.
Those more charitable suggested members of Grego’s team to replace him. Several specified Kevin Hendrick, now the district’s chief academic officer.
Those who answered included a former student who found out years later that he was on the autism spectrum, and recalls a school environment that was “painful, isolating and limiting.”
Many teachers and parents, who made up more than 80 percent of the respondents, described a vast deterioration in student behavior. One writer commended “the grit the teachers have to show up and be abused daily by a system that refuses to discipline students who are determined to be disrespectful and defiant.”
A longtime school volunteer wrote that, in his opinion, young children are too busy mastering academic skills to learn how to socialize and behave.
There were complaints about cafeteria food and anger about the absence of public comments on the board meeting videos. This practice was described as “board silencing opposition speakers.”
The survey drew more than 3,700 responses, and the research firm tabulated the answers to three central questions pertaining to qualities needed for Pinellas’s school leader.
When asked to name the district’s strengths, the clear favorite was “high quality teachers and instruction.”
However, 30 percent also said that making sure schools have good teachers will be one of the next superintendent’s biggest challenges.
But leading the list was “climate and culture,” referring to morale. The need to support students’ emotional and mental wellbeing came in a close second.
“Integrity” was listed as the most important attribute for a school district leader.
Meeting off-camera for a work session Thursday, the board did not discuss the hot-button issues that inspired so many anonymous comments.
Instead, they fine-tuned their lists of job requirements and preferences as they prepare to advertise the position in the coming week.
At the suggestion of board member Caprice Edmond, they highlighted their desire for someone who has been successful in leading a school system with a diverse student body.
Board member Carol Cook suggested changes to phrasing about a candidate’s experience in school district leadership positions, which would vary depending on the size of the district.
Board chairperson Eileen Long asked, “Wouldn’t teaching experience be a minimum?” Otherwise, she wondered, “How will they relate to teachers? Don’t they have to have that experience themselves?”
The board listed teaching experience as a preferred qualification and not a requirement.
But, in keeping with survey results, they agreed that the superintendent should come from a career in education, as opposed to the private sector or the military.
They agreed that the advertised salary range should be between $275,000 and $305,000, not including fringe benefits that will be negotiated later. The chosen candidate will be offered a three-year contract.
“The profession is underpaid from the bottom to the top in this industry,” said board member Nicole Carr. “We want to get the best person we can.”