Pinellas County Schools expected to hire new superintendent who gets thumbs up from some educators and parents

09/17/12 Janelle Irwin
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More than 100 teachers, parents and community leaders met Pinellas County School’s presumed new Superintendent last week. The school board’s candidate, Michael Grego, was warmly received by almost everyone who spoke at the meet and greet.

“And welcome to Pinellas County.”

“Thank you Doctor and welcome.”

“I’d just like to welcome you to Pinellas County, Pinellas County Schools.”

“We look forward to working with you.”

Grego comes to Pinellas with a long list of qualifications including superintendent of Osceola County Schools and assistant superintendent in Hillsborough. School Board members in Pinellas voted to begin contract negotiations with Grego last week and are expected to vote on a final deal next Tuesday. During the informal meeting, Grego highlighted what he expects to accomplish as head of the school district.

“I think moving our district in a very forward, aggressive, urgent manner in which we challenge our students and we are being seen as a top performing school district. I stated a goal tonight as being one of the top performing school districts in the United States and I hold fast to that. That’s where Pinellas County should be and that’s where we should work towards.”

Once a contract is finalized Grego will replace embattled former superintendent Julie Janssen who was fired last year for what the board called a “lack of leadership”. That’s something Pinellas School Board vice chair Carol Cook said she doesn’t expect to be a problem with Grego.

“Well, in some of the cases, we’ve brought a superintendent in that didn’t have experience in the state of Florida – came from another state – and Florida’s very unique in a lot of the ways that we have to operate. He has that experience; he has a broad base across the state. He also has previous experience as a superintendent which is also another plus that kind of sets him aside from some. But the thing that we like most is the sense of urgency, the calmness, the fact that he knows exactly where he’s wanting to head.”

She added, the board is also impressed with how he wants to tackle the school district’s problems.

“He’s going to do it with the input from all of our employee and community groups as well as our students.”

The working together component was at the core of Grego’s remarks. The event coincided with the first day of the continuing Chicago teacher’s strike that’s affecting 350,000 students. Kim Black, president of the Pinellas County teacher’s union, said teachers in her union are facing a lot of the same challenges that caused the teacher walk-out in Chicago.

“Unfortunately, the legislature in Florida passed Senate Bill 736 which requires us, without our input, to establish some measures for the evaluation and many of our working conditions and here in Florida we are under a financial crisis. But, it’s just interesting to see that, thankfully, the class size amendment is in place for us even though legislators keep trying and trying to repeal that. Some of our brothers and sisters in Chicago – they don’t have that luxury. So classes are stacked in order to save money. So, it’s back to the issue of, a teacher’s working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.”

Black said the union has struck a tentative deal with the Pinellas County School Board. The details will be discussed and voted on at the same meeting Grego is expected to be officially hired.

“What we want is someone fighting with us and standing with us on the issues of education and public education specifically and I think that he’s the right person.”

Grego said communication with teachers is key to avoiding a possible strike here.

“I feel like there are issues that, as a profession, that we need to get together and get in a room and debate and have some constructive conversations about – they are issues that our professions need to address. As the theme tonight as our teacher’s union representative said, that we need to work together to do that. We will create some solutions for those.”

During the one hour Q and A with Grego, community members and educators asked about things like supporting music and art programs. One Clearwater High School graduate was concerned that emphasis on college readiness was hurting students who weren’t necessarily a good fit for that kind of extended education. Grego’s solution was to encourage expanding so-called career academies where students focus on a particular skill in addition to their regular academics.

“I believe career ed is working its way back. I really am not only pushing for it, I’m a champion of it and I believe it can be done with still high academic standards because in today’s marketplace a student is just not his hands without his mind. So, still high levels of mathematics and science and the ability to write and so forth. But, you’re right on and we’re going to continue to not only promote the career academies which is a sequence program of multiple courses through out high school, but begin students exploring those things in middle schools and even career exploration elementary schools.”

Only about 25 of the standing room only crowd spoke during the meeting. Grego said he felt good about the things they had to say.

“The people that came here are very, very excited about starting the work – the work of the district, the work to improve student achievement and the work of unifying the school district and moving this school district to what it once really was, a top performing school district in the nation. That’s what I saw.”

Pinellas County school officials had to lay off hundreds of teachers and support staff last year as part of a more than $50 million budget cut. Grego was praised for taking on a school district during tough financial times. He shrugged off the compliment by encouraging concerned citizens to voice their concerns to Tallahassee if they want to curtail future statewide budget cuts.

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