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Wilcox to guide schools' transition

The new superintendent will prove himself during a two-month transition before taking over Nov. 1.

Published April 28, 2004

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LARGO - After a 10-month search filled with twists and turns, the Pinellas County School Board took five minutes Tuesday night to unanimously name Clayton M. Wilcox its next superintendent.

Wilcox, 48, will be the first outsider since 1967 to lead Pinellas schools when he takes over Nov. 1. As head of the largest organization in the county - public or private - the superintendent oversees a $1.2-billion budget and about 18,000 employees.

Wilcox comes to Pinellas after a brief but intense tenure as superintendent of the East Baton Rouge Parish School System in Louisiana. In that troubled district plagued by "white flight" and financial woes, he ran into controversy but also earned accolades as an up-and-coming leader in the education world.

He comes to Pinellas with his wife, Julie, a former teacher, and two young children who soon will enroll in a public elementary school.

"I'm flattered that they would ask me and it's very exciting," Wilcox said from Baton Rouge after the Pinellas board agreed to hire him.

"At the same time, it's a little bittersweet," he said. "I have a lot of friends here. And there's a lot of things we've started here that I would like to see finished."

As Wilcox spoke, his wife and children - a 7-year-old girl named Morgann and a 10-year-old boy named Tanner - were eating dinner at a McDonald's. He said they had shielded the children from the monthlong lead-up to Tuesday's vote, but at the restaurant his wife let the kids know they were moving back to Florida. The family lived in St. Augustine from 1994 to 1999, when Wilcox worked for St. Johns County Schools.

"They jumped up and shouted, "Hooray,"' Wilcox said of his kids. He said they like the beaches in Florida.

In Pinellas, the board's vote allows for a two-month transition, giving Wilcox the title of "superintendent-designate" on Sept. 1. He will work with outgoing superintendent Howard Hinesley before assuming the superintendent's job Nov. 1.

Wilcox will be on a steep learning curve after an interview process that brought him to Pinellas twice last month, then took the School Board on an unusual visit to Baton Rouge. In the flurry, Wilcox never met Hinesley. The only part of the Largo administration building he has seen is the lobby and the room where he was interviewed.

The board also approved a four-year contract that will pay Wilcox $177,000 a year with a built-in annual raise of 5 percent. A caveat: In years when the district's 8,000 teachers get raises of less than 5 percent, Wilcox's raise will match what teachers get.

The outcome of Tuesday's vote has been apparent since last week, when School Board members reached a consensus on Wilcox's contract. They indicated they were split 5-2, with Linda Lerner and Mary Russell expressing reservations about Wilcox's lack of experience in a larger district.

Pinellas, with about 114,000 students, is the nation's 22nd-largest school district. East Baton Rouge has about 47,000 students, down about 7,000 in the last few years as white families there have fled to private schools.

In making the vote unanimous, Lerner and Russell were persuaded by different factors. Lerner said the two-month transition period made her confident that Wilcox could make the jump to Pinellas.

Russell said she was swayed after talking to a Baton Rouge principal who had listed the district's considerable problems. When Russell asked why the principal hadn't resigned, the principal grew teary and replied, "When Dr. Wilcox came I thought I could hang in there. He gave me hope."

Russell said Tuesday night: "Hope is a good thing."

In a second vote on the contract, Russell cast the lone "no" vote. She later explained that a provision to give Wilcox a $900-a-month car allowance was the sticking point. "It just threw it over the top," said Russell, noting that a Pinellas teacher with a doctorate like Wilcox's can earn no more than $54,700.

Wilcox's contract also includes insurance, a $13,000 annuity and a clause requiring him to pay the district up to $60,000 if he leaves early.

With a total value of $242,000, the package reflects the board's feeling that Wilcox will have to earn his stripes as the leader of a large district. The board had been expecting to offer as much as $300,000 for a candidate with previous big district experience. Hinesley's contract, which expires Dec. 31, is valued at about $301,000.

Wilcox will be Pinellas County's 14th school superintendent and its first outsider since 1967, when the School Board hired Thomas B. Southard, a professor of education at the University of South Carolina. Southard left after four years to head Saint Leo University in Pasco County.

Wilcox emerged as the top candidate after an interview in which he displayed his quick wit and knowledge of the most pressing education issues of the day.

The contract will take Wilcox through the first year of the choice plan after racial controls expire. The plan, borne of a settlement in federal court, attempts to integrate schools voluntarily. But if current trends continue, some schools in St. Petersburg will return to being predominantly black for the first time in more than three decades.

In Baton Rouge, Wilcox runs a predominantly black district that is trying to lure white families back into public schools. Now, in addition to the challenge of choice, he also faces the demands of federal and state accountability plans and what some officials say is a lack of education funding in Florida.

Personally, he faces the challenge of getting his children in a Pinellas school after missing the deadline. Under choice rules, the Wilcoxes would be assigned to a school that has open seats.

He said he plans to travel to Pinellas in the next week to begin looking for a home and meet with board members and Hinesley.

He said his search would give him a chance to survey the district from "a consumer's point of view" and begin to ask questions about its operations.

- Information from The Advocate in Baton Rouge was used in this report.

[Last modified April 28, 2004, 01:05:41]

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