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Wilcox plan: Back to teaching

The superintendent announces an employee reshuffling that could push many "out of their comfort zone." It's "the right thing for kids," he says.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published June 17, 2005

LARGO - More than 75 Pinellas school employees soon will be transferred from district headquarters to schools or to offices closer to schools as part of a system overhaul announced Thursday by superintendent Clayton Wilcox.

An additional 250 employees will be told to spend less time on administrative tasks so they can spend at least 51 percent of their day teaching students or training fellow educators.

Most of the changes, described as "massive" by Wilcox, will fall on about 300 employees called "teachers on special assignment," who perform a variety of tasks for the district.

They work for the Division of Curriculum and Instruction, the district's largest department outside the bus system.

Wilcox has hinted at such a move from the time he took over as superintendent last November, often saying publicly that the district's administrative staff seemed too large. He said Thursday he also has been influenced by conversations in recent months with teachers and principals.

"One of the things I keep hearing is we're shorthanded - we can't get it done because we don't have enough people to do it," Wilcox said in a speech broadcast to employees throughout the district.

"This is a way to send some people to assist at the schoolhouse," he said. "We very much want to make sure that if you're a teacher, you're teaching."

With more educators inside schools, principals will be able to give more individual attention to struggling students, Wilcox said. "If they can pull pupil-teacher ratios down even for a part of the day, they might be able to meet the needs of learners in the school better."

In other words, it's all hands on deck as Wilcox attempts to sharply elevate Pinellas' scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to levels that will satisfy new federal standards. His predecessor, Howard Hinesley, had been content with more incremental improvement.

Wilcox announced a number of other changes, including a reshuffling of office space at district headquarters and a drastic restructuring of top administrators.

Previously, the district managed its affairs by dividing the county into three regions, each headed by an area superintendent. Under Wilcox's plan, one top administrator, Michael Bessette, will be in charge of high schools and middle schools. The two other area superintendents, Oscar Robinson and Barbara Hires, will manage the elementary schools.

Many more changes are on the horizon, Wilcox said, including a revamping of the way the district serves disabled students.

He outlined his plans in the small cafeteria at Largo headquarters, where about 50 employees applauded his remarks. But signs of dissent were apparent as well.

The superintendent read several questions submitted anonymously by employees who either had not grasped the gravity of Thursday's meeting or disagreed with his plans.

One note complained that employees did not have access to the ice machine after 3 p.m. Several objected to being transferred from their current offices because it might move their work place further from home.

Some wanted assurances that they wouldn't have to move to a new office on their free time.

At least two protested Wilcox's plan to keep the district's human resources office open on Saturdays, to which he responded that he would staff that office himself if they didn't want to.

"I'm here (on Saturdays) anyway," he said.

A 10-year employee criticized his "lead-by-chaos management style," a remark that clearly struck a nerve.

"I actually believe that what we're doing is we're being a much more responsive organization," Wilcox said. "I will honestly say to you that I think that some of the things that are happening today would not have happened had we been more dynamic prior to my getting here. But I do understand that we're pushing people out of their comfort zone."

The changes, he said, are "the right thing for kids."

To those who said they wanted to continue to work close to home, Wilcox said he would work with them. But he added: "In a modern organization, you're going to work wherever the organization needs you. You don't sign up to work at a building."

According to numbers compiled by the district's budget office, Pinellas could stand to cut back on what it spends outside the classroom. The district spent 61.6 percent of its operating fund on "direct instruction" during the 2003-04 school year. Of the 12 Florida school systems measured, that was fourth lowest.

Meanwhile, the district had the second highest level of "general administrative support." The district has about 15,000 employees.

Wilcox's plans run counter to the career aspirations of those educators who view advancement as getting out of the classroom.

Teachers on special assignment, the group affected most by Thursday's announcement, fill a variety of posts. Examples cited by Wilcox include reading coaches, grant administrators and technology support staffers.

"Let's say that you are a technologist out of a school, and your job is to troubleshoot the (computer) network all day," he said. "Now you're going to have to teach some kids."

Do it with a smile, he added.

"I will expect that whoever goes, go with a positive attitude and be willing to help kids," he told employees. "Because if you don't have that, then that's another whole set of issues that we'll talk about."

[Last modified June 17, 2005, 00:34:18]

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