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  1. Pinellas

A St. Pete College institute focused on public policy is without a director. What's next?

St. Petersburg College campus in Midtown. [Times, 2015]
Published Jun. 13

ST. PETERSBURG — The fate of the state-funded Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions at St. Petersburg College has been unclear since last month, when its longtime director was told he couldn't keep his job.

College officials confirmed this week that the center, a venue for community conversations about political issues founded in 2008, is not going away. But it is headed in a different direction.

That's what a college official told David Klement, the director whose contract was mysteriously non-renewed on May 9. Others used the "different direction" language in interviews with the Tampa Bay Times, but it isn't yet clear what it means.

"A different direction — that's all they told me after eight years of service," Klement said.

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Jamelle Conner, vice president of student affairs at the college, said in an interview Tuesday that she and other leaders at the school have new ideas for the institute and want someone other than Klement, 79, to see them through. The board of directors for the institute has not been informed of what officials are planning and had no part in the decision to replace Klement, said chairwoman Judge Irene Sullivan.

"We appreciate Mr. Klement for all that he did," Conner said. "But the college really felt we needed a change in leadership to take the institute to the next level."

Conner would not specify who decided to fire Klement, nor discuss specific plans in store for the institute. She said only that the college would like to see a heavier focus on national and international issues, rather than local. That could be accomplished by using technology, which would enable speakers to call into panels from other counties, she added.

"Been there, done that," Klement said Thursday. "Makes me wonder if they even knew what we were doing. (College) leadership seldom showed up."

Just last year, the institute held programs on democracy vs. capitalism, the #MeToo movement, fake news and climate change, he said. Prior to that, Klement organized panels on topics like gun violence and the link between mass shootings and mental health, immigration reform, school testing, the opioid epidemic and more. Speakers have visited from other states, like journalist and Harvard University professor Marvin Kalb, who came to speak about Russian threats.

"When you think about things such as legalization of marijuana, immigration, gun violence … those are all national issues," he said. "That's a phony kind of excuse. Never was there any criticisms of the kinds of programs I was doing."

The only complaint Klement heard about his work came from college president Tonjua Williams, he said. She said too many of the institute's events were being held on the college's Seminole campus. So before being let go, Klement planned events at at least three other campuses for the coming year, he said.

Sullivan, the institute board's chairwoman, declined to comment on what is happening until she meets with Conner to learn more. "I don't know anything," she said Thursday. Project director Jacqulyn Shuett said the institute is making some changes, but that she didn't have enough details to comment.

Retired Judge George Greer, vice chairman of the board, said he also is out of the loop on what the college is planning.

"I really know nothing," he said. "I just got an email that (Klement) was not renewed, and then another email that the college is considering next steps for the institute."

To Klement, it is clear college leaders are excluding board members and institute staff from discussions about what is next. He said college leaders have been meeting privately to craft plans, keeping others in the dark.

"They aren't being kept in the loop," Klements said. "It's a public organization."

Sullivan says more should come to light at the board's next meeting, on Aug. 12.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.

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