St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Board takes stock of top education candidate

Clayton M. Wilcox visits Pinellas schools and fields questions on his style.

Published March 16, 2004

LARGO - Clayton M. Wilcox was nowhere on the Pinellas radar just a week ago, toiling instead amid the fractured politics of a much smaller and poorer school district two states away.

But after a whirlwind of Pinellas appearances Monday, the superintendent of the East Baton Rouge Parish School System in Louisiana is a stranger no more. He could emerge as the first Pinellas schools superintendent since 1967 to be chosen from outside the district.

At two stops Monday night, Wilcox sought to address concerns that he would take the school district by storm.

In the first six months of his tenure, "I would be a sponge trying to learn the good things that you're doing," Wilcox told the Pinellas School Board. "This is not a school system that requires you to turn it inside out, upside down."

He said, however, that he would bring "a different set of eyes" to Pinellas, where superintendent Howard Hinesley is retiring after 14 years.

The School Board will meet at 6 p.m. today to decide whether to proceed further with Wilcox.

A vote in his favor would prompt the board to send a contingent to Baton Rouge to visit Wilcox's district. Board attorney John Bowen would then develop a contract, and the board would meet April 27 to take a final vote.

Wilcox, 48, faced a board with questions about his hands-on style in Baton Rouge, a controversial move there to privatize part of the system, his sometimes rough relations with his own board and his willingness to leave that job after only 21/2 years.

Noting that his style has been called aggressive, Wilcox said, "The reason is I believe passionately in what I do. I think I know when to pull back."

He acknowledged that he has disagreed with his 12-member board on some issues as Baton Rouge strains to revive a school system struggling with "white flight" and serious financial problems.

Pinellas board members did not respond to his comments, taking their search consultant's advice that this was a time for questions, not reactions.

Wilcox emerged Saturday as the top candidate among three prospects selected by the board's Chicago-based search consultant, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates. At a meeting Saturday, board members Lee Benjamin, Nancy Bostock, Mary Brown, Jane Gallucci and Carol Cook expressed strong support for Wilcox, though none said they were prepared at that point to hire him. Board members Linda Lerner and Mary Russell had concerns.

On Monday, Wilcox addressed Lerner's concern about his willingness to leave Baton Rouge in the middle of an ambitious program of change.

He said the district has set up systems to keep that program on track no matter who is in charge.

"I don't know that there's ever a good time to leave," he said. "I'm telling you that I will stay as long as you'll have me."

Like many school districts, including Pinellas, East Baton Rouge has had a mixed record dealing with the achievement gap. But Wilcox said the "trend lines are positive" in his district.

Louisiana's 2003 accountability report says Wilcox's district has a lower percentage of "schools in decline" than the state, but a higher percentage of schools that had no growth last year.

- Times staff writers Monique Fields and Stephen Nohlgren contributed to this report.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.