School Board buys Web writing program

After a long and fractious debate, purchase of a $60,000 software package is approved, 4-2.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published September 12, 2007

In the end, Pinellas School Board members voted 4-2 in favor of paying a North Carolina company $60,000 for a Web-based software program that aims to help students improve their writing.

But on their way to making that decision Tuesday morning, they became embroiled in a much more philosophical question:

When it comes to running a school district, what is the role of the superintendent and what is the role of the school board?

Board member Janet Clark got the ball rolling by asking if the product, MyWritingWeb, was the appropriate tool to incorporate writing into science and social studies classes.

Among her concerns was how much flexibility teachers would have in using the software and how they would fit it into their busy schedules.

Board member Linda Lerner suggested that the district staff could accomplish the same results without buying the company's product and worried that the firm was trying to make a name for itself by test-driving the software in Pinellas.

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who had recommended the software to the board after learning about it at a convention and requesting a demonstration, said he thought the product was "absolutely consistent with the district's direction."

But the discussion about it continued. About 40 minutes into the conversation, Wilcox suggested that board members might be "pushing a fine line."

"I am not sure at the end of the day if choosing specific instructional applications is really what folks have elected you to do," he said. "I wouldn't presume to tell you that, but it does cross my mind."

Lerner bristled.

"Dr. Wilcox, with all due respect," she said, "I'm doing what people elected me to do."

Board member Carol Cook disagreed. "We've approved the goals the superintendent brought to us," Cook said. "Once we approve those goals, we then charge the superintendent and his staff with carrying out those goals."

Board member Nancy Bostock more or less split the difference between Lerner and Cook, saying that it's easier to talk about staying on one side of the line than it is to do it.

"I think it's fair for board members to question this," she said. "We are ultimately accountable not only for budgetary issues, but also for how we educate our students and the workload we put on our teachers."

Wilcox said he understood the difficulty board members have, but held his ground.

"Ultimately, what I was trying to say was (that) you've charged me with this," he said. "I'm bringing something I think is right."

Fifteen minutes later, Cook called for the vote. She, Bostock, Peggy O'Shea and chairwoman Mary Brown voted in favor of the contract. Clark and Lerner voted against it.

Lerner said after the meeting she wasn't sorry that things went slightly off course.

"I wouldn't want to have this conversation at every meeting," she said. "But sometimes, I think we need to have this discussion."