School chief softens his touch

As the School Board weighs a contract extension, "outsider" Clayton Wilcox appears to be on a more diplomatic path.

Published June 20, 2006

LARGO - Years before he became superintendent of Pinellas schools, Clayton Wilcox was a high school and small-college basketball coach in Iowa.

Still a practitioner of the sport, having recently injured his ankle in a pickup game, he borrows from basketball lore to make a point about his career.

Not many people, Wilcox noted, could name the successor to John Wooden, the coach who led UCLA to 10 college titles in a storied 26-year run. The next guy, Gene Bartow, lasted just two seasons.

As the first outsider to lead Pinellas schools after 32 years of home-grown superintendents, Wilcox is every bit the transitional figure Bartow was. But he aims to avoid the fate of many corporate and government leaders who bring change to big organizations by shaking things up and stepping on toes, only to move on after a short stay.

"I do want to break that mold here," Wilcox said.

But how?

"It's something that I kind of live in fear of every day," he said. "Do I moderate my behavior, because I'm a middle-of-the-road milquetoast guy, to ensure my long-term future here? ... Or do I keep pushing and risk that?"

The School Board will address the question of Wilcox's longevity today, formally approving his annual evaluation and debating whether to add another year to his contract, as it did last year.

What started at his 2004 hiring as a four-year deal could morph into a six-year contract ending in 2010.

Five of seven board members have given him favorable evaluations, offering praise for leading the district through a difficult period while injecting more energy into the district's culture, even as he ruffles feathers.

But along with the good has come criticism that seems to focus on Wilcox's style.

A recent St. Petersburg Times poll found that a majority of Pinellas teachers suffer from low morale and find fault with Wilcox's job performance. A district employee survey also uncovered misgivings about his leadership.

In memos and public statements, Wilcox has lavishly supported district employees on numerous occasions. He also was among the loudest supporters of a successful voter initiative to increase teacher pay. Last year, he told principals to spend at least three full days with a teacher "to really see what the life of a classroom teacher has become."

Still, his more candid public comments about the district's shortcomings are what seem to stick with many employees.

"The superintendent has failed to recognize the weight of his words and their ability to affect our community," board member Mary Russell complained in her evaluation.

Chastened by such criticism, Wilcox is choosing his words more carefully of late. His comments in public and in interviews have tended to be more diplomatic. Remarks that bear even a hint of controversy now contain more clarifiers.

In an interview last week, he expressed regret about several remarks that have rubbed employees the wrong way. Among them were his repeated comments to the effect that the district needs to pay more attention to students' needs than those of its employees.

"That probably wasn't the wisest thing,'' Wilcox said. "To some degree that's a naive statement I think.''

He continues to be haunted, he said, by a comment last year to the Times editorial board that the district employs "an awful lot of middle-class, white teachers who sometimes struggle with understanding the environments that a lot of (minority) kids come out of."

Wilcox said last week that he shares the same struggle, and was pointing out a "cultural conflict" in a district where the teaching force is predominantly female and more than 90 percent white.

"I wasn't trying to call someone out," he said. "What I was trying to point out was this problem that I think we had to fix."

While some district employees have expressed irritation at Wilcox, many outsiders have cheered him.

Several business leaders associated with the Pinellas Education Foundation have notified the School Board they strongly support Wilcox.

"The corporate community appreciates his candor, his passion for education and his willingness to do what is right, even when it is not the popular thing to do or easily accomplished," Bill Habermeyer, Progress Energy's top executive, said in a May 23 letter.

Wilcox also fares much better with Pinellas parents, 66 percent of whom rated his performance excellent or good in a Times poll in November.

One explanation: Many parents welcome the changes Wilcox made to the controversial school choice plan.

School Board member Jane Gallucci said Wilcox also engaged parents shortly after his arrival in public forums across the county.