Howard Hinesley surprises board members with the decision, which he said is aimed at giving the district plenty of time to search for a successor.
By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 2002
LARGO -- With the Pinellas County School District in the midst of converting to an ambitious school choice plan, Superintendent Howard Hinesley abruptly announced Tuesday night he will retire at the end of 2004.
Hinesley, the nation's longest-serving urban school district superintendent, didn't warn School Board members before he broke the news to them near the end of a routine board meeting. He told top district administrators two hours before the meeting.
The announcement came during the time when Hinesley routinely updates the board on various issues. He chastised a board member for how she handled an issue, congratulated another for an academic award and mentioned an upcoming meeting with county commissioners before turning to a prepared statement.
In the statement, he said that district employees had asked him in recent months about his plans. They told him he owed it to the district to oversee a smooth transition to his successor. He thought they were right.
"By letting you know tonight, it allows you to get the proper community input," said Hinesley, 55. "You will have enough time to plan. I want to do the honorable thing."
When he stopped reading and declared, "That's it!" board members sat silent.
"That's it?" asked board member Jane Gallucci.
"Everybody's kind of sitting here in shock," said board chairman Lee Benjamin.
The announcement comes at an awkward time for the nation's 21st-largest school district, which has 112,000 students.
The Pinellas district is preparing for one of the country's largest school choice programs as part of an agreement Hinesley negotiated to end court-ordered busing for desegregation. Thousands of families are selecting the schools they want their children to attend when choice begins in the fall of 2003.
Now Pinellas will go through the preparations and the first full year of choice with a lame-duck superintendent.
In addition, the Pinellas district is preparing for another tight budget year next year that is already forcing more cuts in personnel. At the same time, dozens of high-ranking administrators also are preparing to retire.
Hinesley's announcement also comes just two weeks before the Nov. 5 election.
The seven-member School Board is assured of having two new members: Teacher Mary Russell was elected in September; in two weeks, voters will choose between Mary Brown and Tiffany Todd, the daughter of Pinellas County Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd, to fill another seat.
More changes are likely in the future: Voters also will decide Nov. 5 whether to elect School Board members from single-member districts instead of countywide.
Hinesley, who has served as superintendent since 1990, said his timing is aimed at giving the district plenty of time to search for a successor.
He expects that a half-dozen other Florida districts might be searching at the same time for new leaders. With his last day set around Dec. 31, 2004, -- accrued vacation time could make it sooner -- he wanted board members to be able to set their priorities well before the 2004 election season gets under way.
What's the next step -- community meetings, a board retreat, a national search?
Gallucci said she has too many other pressing issues to worry about first.
"First we have to get choice going," she said. "We need to deal with this."
In the past dozen years, Hinesley survived controversial discipline cases, lean financial years, unsupportive school boards and difficult negotiations with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to end court-ordered busing.
Supporters attributed his longevity to his role as a district insider after rising through the ranks, and to the contacts he made among business leaders, community activists and union officials.
Critics countered that he managed to survive in a high-pressure job because he passed blame, surrounded himself with top aides who were reluctant to criticize and was sometimes difficult to nail down to a single position.
But Hinesley's overriding legacy will be the end of busing for desegregation and the beginning of school choice, a concept many parents are still trying to grasp even as a December deadline looms to choose schools for 2003.
While the School Board initiated the effort to end federal court oversight of the school system that stemmed from a 1964 court case, Hinesley embraced the idea and pushed school choice as the best alternative.
He promised Tuesday night that he is committed to making choice a success and that his lame-duck status would not be obvious in his work.
"I won't be any less of a superintendent than I have been," he said. "You won't see any less effort. I have to be held accountable."
As for specific plans for his retirement, all he knows is that he will move closer to his hometown of Warrenton, Ga. He had promised his family he would move closer as soon as he could.
Hinesley just received a lucrative new contract last December that sparked statewide controversy. He earns about $170,000 a year, and the board agreed to give him a permanent life insurance policy that will cost up to $140,000 in premiums plus $60,000 in taxes. The contract was awarded as the school district contemplated millions in budget cuts, and the Florida House speaker circulated news accounts of the contract to legislators as evidence of excessive spending by local school officials.
Hinesley arrived in the superintendent's office by way of the district's curriculum and exceptional education departments. In 1985, then-Superintendent Scott Rose named Hinesley the district's No. 2 administrator. In March 1990, the School Board unanimously voted to select Hinesley to succeed Rose rather than conduct a national search for a replacement.
Known for his Southern drawl, quick handshake and love of his alma mater, the University of Alabama, Hinesley first came to work for the school district in 1978.
Hinesley wouldn't speculate about whether any district employees would be interested in his job. Tuesday night, it was clear that deputy superintendent John Stewart, the former Polk County superintendent, doesn't have eyes on Hinesley's office.
"No, no thanks," he said.
HOMETOWN: Warrenton, Ga.
EDUCATION: Bachelor of science, master of arts and doctor of education degrees from the University of Alabama.
HIRED IN PINELLAS: July 1, 1978.
SUPERINTENDENT SINCE: 1990.
FAMILY: Married with three adult children.
Bus plan looms as parents choose, June 8, 2002
Special ed classes staying put, March 15, 2002
Board of Education tests limits of control, Dec. 15, 2001
Hinesley is now a topic statewide, Dec, 13, 2001
Decision day for Hinesley's contract, Dec. 11, 2001
Board makes offer to superintendent, Nov. 21, 2001