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A Times Editorial

One man's education legacy


© St. Petersburg Times
published March 16, 2003

Tom Weightman once teased John Long that ugly school buildings would be Long's legacy as Pasco school superintendent.

Weightman, who preceded Long as superintendent, fretted about schools' physical appearances, saying the public's perception of education quality is shaded by the initial impression they get driving by a school campus.

Long doesn't have that luxury. Stretching dollars to the maximum means repeating a functional, nondescript school design whenever possible. Gone are the tile roofs and brick trim of the past. But the new philosophy helped earn the district extra state aid for its construction efficiency.

It hasn't been enough. The district built 11 schools since Long became superintendent in 1996, but it still has the equivalent of nine elementary schools housed in portable classrooms. It is why Long took the lead in seeking a sales tax increase to finance school construction.

The referendum is scheduled to be on the November 2004 ballot. Long's name is not expected to join it. He acknowledged last week he is unlikely to run for re-election when his term expires next year. Long won't make a definitive public statement yet, but he talks like someone who is ready to walk away.

"I'm probably not going to run," he said Friday. "I may come in here Monday morning raring to go, but I don't think so."

Fear not. His legacy will stretch far beyond bland architecture.

Long guides a growing district in a straightforward, open manner. If a problem emerges, he confronts it head on and explains it candidly to the public and press. He is a smart, popular politician, so well liked that he never had a contested re-election as superintendent or during his eight years in the Florida House of Representatives.

Under his guidance, district schools excel according to the governor's dubious A+

Plan that assigns letter grades to schools based on standardized test performance. Students captured two world titles in the Odyssey of the Mind competition, and the district started an International Baccalaureate program.

His successful tenure shapes the expected election next year to pick a successor. It won't be about failing schools or poor student performance. Those buzzwords are foreign to Pasco's public schools. The debate will focus on class sizes, development, and school finances.

Weightman hired Long in the mid 1970s to handle labor relations, and Long responded by ending the acrimony between the teachers union and the administration. When Long became superintendent, he had other personnel priorities. He contracted administrative positions to cut overhead, then had to do so again during a state budget crunch that also eliminated summer school for students. It wasn't easy, but doing so removed the standard bloated bureaucracy argument offered from sales tax opponents.

School crowding, though, dominated all of Long's tenure. The year before he assumed the reins from Weightman, the public turned down a proposed five-year sales tax increase to build schools. The district has scrambled since, relying on increased state help courtesy of the tobacco settlement windfall and lottery proceeds; additional local borrowing; and an impact fee on new homes enacted by the County Commission in early 2001.

The impact fee highlighted Long's political skill. He worked with then-Sen. Jack Latvala to stall a bill in Tallahassee that would have prohibited enactment of new school impact fees, cajoled county government staffers to move forward with the local ordinance, lobbied each of the six municipalities to approve inter-local agreements, then soothed an agitated Jed Pittman, who growled that his Circuit Court clerk's office would be stuck with administrative chores, but no compensation.

Unfortunately, impact fees alone will not end school crowding. Long said his one regret is not asking the public to consider the sales tax referendum sooner.

"But, I think it's the right thing to do that for the county and for the children."

With that attitude, Long shouldn't be concerned about Weightman's ribbing.

A legacy of unattractive school buildings?

No.

A legacy of leadership.

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