tampabay.com

School leaders' image improves

By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published April 25, 2007


LARGO - Employees of the Pinellas school system have raised their opinion of superintendent Clayton Wilcox and the seven-member School Board, according to an annual survey released this week.

Forty-three percent of the employees who participated agreed that Wilcox is providing "quality leadership," up from 34 percent last year.

Similarly, 41 percent gave the School Board high marks for leadership, up 11 points from last year.

More than 8,600 employees participated in the "climate survey," which was conducted in March, shortly before spring break.

Among the other survey results: a strong improvement in the climate at Gibbs High School, which suffered a blow in December when the district stepped in to address dire complaints from teachers about student behavior and vandalism. Though some of the school's marks remain low, it showed significant gains in employee confidence in several areas. For example, 72 percent of the Gibbs employees who participated in the survey agreed the campus is safe, up from only 52 percent last year.

"They had a problem and district did what it needed to do and the teachers did what they needed to do and they got it turned around quickly," said School Board member Carol Cook.

Board chairwoman Mary Brown said of Gibbs' first-year principal, Antelia Campbell, "She's making a great effort to make sure the students know they're cared about, so the students care more about their school."

Other high schools showing a marked improvement in climate were Countryside, Lakewood, St. Petersburg and Tarpon Springs. Palm Harbor University High and Largo High saw significant declines in how employees felt about their work environment. Just over half of those surveyed at Palm Harbor agreed that teachers and administrators work well together, down from 98 percent the year before.

The brighter assessment for the superintendent and School Board came after a year that saw Wilcox's honeymoon period end after taking over the district in 2004. In that first year, 55 percent of employees said they liked his leadership. Later, however, many soured on him as he tried to summon more urgency from employees but rubbed some the wrong way with frank and sometimes unflattering comments about the system.

The board's numbers decreased last year as well after a long period marked by frequent squabbles that increased in intensity during a difficult round of budget cuts.

This school year, in contrast, has been quieter with board members taking a more civil tone.

District employees, Cook said, are "seeing us really trying to focus on what the real issues are and get past some of the stuff we were doing before."

Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, attributed the board's improved ratings in part to its recent rejection of an unpopular teacher bonus plan mandated by the state. The so-called STAR plan has since been dropped and replaced with a more palatable plan.

Moore also cited the departure of former Gov. Jeb Bush, seen by many teachers as a politician who meddled and imposed his will on Florida classrooms.

"It's nice to see that, all of a sudden, people are being treated with respect again," Moore said. He added that Wilcox appears to have "settled in" and people are getting more comfortable with him.

Wilcox speculated on his improved numbers, saying he and his administrators have tried to consult schools before enacting changes that affect the classroom. He also cited an effort by his office to make campuses more civil.

"I think part of it is also that people are beginning to know who I am, what I'm trying to do with the system," he said. "There was a lot of speculation that I was here for short time. ... Hopefully people understand that this is my school district. This is what I want to do."