Schools' focus criticized

A foundation known for helping Pinellas students behind the scenes takes a strong public stance.

Published August 30, 2006

The leaders of a group that raises millions of dollars for Pinellas school programs blasted the School Board on Wednesday, accusing it of losing focus and failing to meet the needs of children in the district.

Board members are spending too much time micromanaging daily issues to address what’s really important, representatives from the Pinellas Education Foundation told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board.

Instead of working on problems such as Pinellas’ lagging high school graduation rate and the achievement gap between black and white students, they are nitpicking inessentials and catering to teachers, said foundation members, all of whom serve on the group’s executive committee.

“I think we have to have a return to a focus on what’s important if we want to send children out into the world prepared for life,” said Gerald F. Hogan, a foundation member and chairman of Canna Capital. “It’s very rare that the board actually focuses on that mission.”

The criticism comes less than a week before a School Board primary election in which 16 candidates, including four incumbents, are vying for seats.

“It’s obviously a very important time politically,” education foundation president Terry Boehm said in an interview before the meeting. “We want people in the community to be aware of the fact that we’ve got four board seats open. We want people to get out and vote and be a part of that.”

Such a public stand is unusual for the foundation, which usually works behind the scenes to provide Pinellas students with scholarships and other programs. Its 12-member executive committee reads like a who’s who of the business community and includes school superintendent Clayton Wilcox.

Its 33-member board of directors includes other business executives, including Nancy Waclawek, director of corporate giving for the Times.

Wednesday’s meeting, Boehm said, was motivated by “pure frustration.”

“Frankly, we’ve been pushed into this position,” he said. “We don’t have an agenda, nor do we have a charge to do this kind of a meeting. Speaking only for myself, I would much rather go back to focusing on raising scholarship dollars, putting smiles on kids’ faces.”

While not endorsing any candidates, the business leaders were particularly critical of Mary Russell, who is running for re-election.

They said they were troubled by her recent annual evaluation of Wilcox, which they called a personal attack rather than a useful response, and faulted her in general for what they perceive as her inability to get along with other board members.

“She has a passion for children, a passion for teachers and a passion for education,” said Robert McIntyre, head of the foundation’s board of directors and chairman of the board of electronics manufacturer Ditek Inc. of Largo. “It’s not that she doesn’t care about our kids. It’s just that she doesn’t know how to help them.”

“I guess we agree on the heart of the matter, that the School Board is not working cooperatively,” Russell said when reached for comment. “I guess some people think the School Board isn’t working cooperatively in the best interests of the superintendent, and that’s where we disagree.”

Foundation members also criticized Linda Lerner, another sitting board member running for re-election. They took her to task for a recent plea she made to extend health benefits to part-time school personnel during a televised board meeting.

“That was a political statement, that’s all it was,” said McIntyre, the foundation chairman. “It sounded so great to a person in the audience who would think, 'She cares so much about those people.’ ”

Lerner vehemently denied Wednesday that she was grandstanding for the camera. She also disagreed with the foundation’s overall charge that the board has lost sight of its mission.

“I think most of us agree that the achievement gap, the graduation rate, vocational and career education are what we are focusing on,” Lerner said. “Can we sharpen our focus? Yes, and I believe we are doing that.”

The business leaders said they hope to see more professional diversity on the School Board after this year’s election. Having too many teachers on the board, McIntyre said, has caused members to focus on issues that are primarily of interest to educators.

Whatever the outcome, the group plans to continue monitoring the board’s activities.

Said Hogan: “We’re going to be at every School Board meeting sitting in the front row just to let them know there’s an adult in the room.”