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Hinesley's plans evoke relief, disgust


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 24, 2002

LARGO -- Pinellas school superintendent Howard Hinesley's abrupt announcement that he will retire when his contract expires at the end of 2004 triggered distinct reactions Wednesday.

LARGO -- Pinellas school superintendent Howard Hinesley's abrupt announcement that he will retire when his contract expires at the end of 2004 triggered distinct reactions Wednesday.

Some School Board members and district officials said they are disappointed Hinesley said Tuesday night he is leaving, but they said they appreciated the time he gave them to search for his successor. Most said they never expected Hinesley to stay beyond 2004.

"Giving us such notice, that just shows that he really cares about the district," board member Nancy Bostock said.

But others, including some parents and teachers, were surprised and appalled. They said Hinesley duped the board into approving a lucrative contract extension in December 2001 to see the district through the transition to school choice. He'll leave in the middle of choice's second year.

"I was disgusted," said Mendee Ligon, a member of the School Advisory Council at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg. "It's going to make the school district even more nervous about the transition process."

Hinesley, the longest-serving urban superintendent in the nation, said it will take more than a year for board members to set their priorities, develop a search process, write a timeline and begin interviewing candidates.

"That's why I think it's good to have time," said Hinesley, 55.

Hinesley has been superintendent since 1990. His contract was to have expired June 30. Last November, he notified the School Board that he wanted to stay longer. Originally, he only wanted to stay two more years.

Hinesley and the board eventually settled on a contract that keeps Hinesley at the helm of the nation's 21st largest school district until Dec. 31, 2004. (With accrued vacation and sick time, his last day could be a month or so earlier.) Board members said they wanted stable leadership during a time of great change.

Hinesley would have been eligible for full retirement benefits without the extension, but he won some lucrative perks. The most controversial was the board's decision to buy Hinesley a $690,000 permanent life insurance policy and pay the annual premium of around $61,000 for each of the first three years. (His previous contract called for the board to spend about $3,000 for Hinesley's life insurance.)

Hinesley would have benefited if he had agreed to stay an optional fourth year, because the school district would have paid off the remainder of the premium. Since he didn't, Hinesley will pick up that cost.

He said he doesn't have any plans during retirement, other than to move closer to his Georgia hometown. He said he is not searching for another job.

While not imminent, Hinesley's departure will come at an awkward time.

Mary Brown, a School Board candidate, is worried about his lame-duck status and a potential leadership void.

"The board really has to step up to the plate and assume a different role than it has in the past," she said. "If the board takes a very, very strong role, I think we can get through this and move on ahead."

Said Brown's opponent, Tiffany Todd: "I'm hoping he's going to keep his enthusiasm over the next couple of years, and he's going to stay the course and do his best to ensure we have a smooth transition."

Board member Linda Lerner doesn't worry that Hinesley won't be engaged, though she doesn't think the board needed two years to conduct a search. Board members are keenly aware that they can't move too fast because the job won't be open for 26 months.

"I have no doubt that he'll work as hard," Lerner said. "I've never doubted his work ethic."

Parents are in the midst of choosing schools for fall 2003, when a "controlled choice" plan will replace neighborhood zoning and cross-county busing for desegregation. It is the biggest change since 1971, when the district was ordered to desegregate.

Enrique Escarraz, the lead local attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, sees an opportunity in a new leader, who might focus more on improved achievement for black students. He doesn't worry that Hinesley will half-heartedly implement choice.

"If this is going to be his legacy," Escarraz said, "he is going to want to make it as good as he possibly can."

Choice isn't the only looming challenge. Over the next year, numerous high-ranking administrators will retire. Those include area superintendents, the head of curriculum, the county athletic director and school principals.

Hinesley will appoint their replacements. But will he be able to attract solid candidates when they could lose their jobs with a new superintendent?

Teachers union executive director Jade Moore said Hinesley will be able to attract only "short timers."

"You're creating a team, and your team captain is leaving," added board member Jane Gallucci.

Hinesley said he assumes that a new superintendent would be willing to work with his appointments and give them opportunities to prove themselves.

While people will be jockeying for new jobs within the district and wondering who their new boss will be, board Chairman Lee Benjamin said he doesn't think employees will be distracted.

"We've got a big enough job ahead of us; it's going to take everyone working hard," he said. "Professionals are going to put their minds and effort to make that happen."

At the beginning of the year, Hinesley delivered a forceful speech to principals and demanded they work hard. He knew many were getting ready to retire, and he told them that he expected they wouldn't just be marking time.

Carol Cook and other board members recently watched a videotape of that speech.

"If he's expecting it from the principals," she said, "we can expect it from him."

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