School dispute simmers at top

The Pinellas district's top two people are locked in a nasty feud.

By Thomas C. Tobin, Times Staff Writer
Published February 22, 2008

For more than a year behind the scenes, the top two employees in the Pinellas school system have been at odds, their ability to work together hampered.

Now, the relationship between superintendent Clayton Wilcox and School Board attorney Jim Robinson is so poisonous that Robinson has asked the board to intervene. He has proposed that the board hire a facilitator to help repair the damage.

Board members will deal with the conflict at a workshop Monday. But most say they have doubts about hiring a facilitator and none of them were happy about mediating a nasty dispute between two well-paid employees.

"They need to work together, and they need to figure out a way," board member Carol Cook said. "Grow up. I wouldn't accept this from my children."

Chairwoman Nancy Bostock said the board should discuss "whether we have the right people in these positions."

She added: "This is not the first chapter in this saga, but I think it might be in the school district's best interests to have this be the last chapter."

In a private corporation, several said, the two men would be told to work it out.

"And if you don't work it out, then someone chooses to move on," board member Jane Gallucci said. "They're big boys. They're intelligent boys. They can work it out."

E-mails show new low

The ongoing conflict hit a new low in recent days when Wilcox and Robinson traded e-mails over the issue of how principals should react to arrests and law enforcement investigations on public school campuses.

Robinson expressed dismay that the superintendent did not consult him on the issue. Wilcox responded with an e-mail that said, in part: "Jim ... I lack any confidence in you and your ability to give me advice that is competent."

He went on to criticize Robinson as inconsistent and self-promoting and said he wished the board had fired Robinson in the fall when his contract came up for renewal. He said he planned to work mainly with two other attorneys on the district staff and seek Robinson's advice only in "limited circumstances." He said he would "work professionally" with Robinson in instances when contact could not be avoided.

Robinson shared the e-mail with School Board members, saying, "the personal attack he launches against me is of no consequence." But he argued that the superintendent cannot go around him because the board has hired him to be its attorney as well as the district's general counsel.

"Dr. Wilcox's failure to cooperate in good faith materially and wrongfully interferes with my ability to fulfill my duties and responsibilities," Robinson wrote.

In interviews, both men acknowledged that their troubles span many months and involve a number of issues affecting the district.

"I feel embarrassed that something like this found its way into the public spotlight," Wilcox said.

He criticized Robinson for involving board members, thus making the dispute public.

"I'm a strong-willed person," Wilcox said. "And I've worked through some very difficult situations in my career. But I've never had somebody who intentionally chose to take the conversation out of our hands and put it into someone else's."

Robinson argued that the superintendent's unwillingness to work with him constituted a "fundamental breakdown" between the two men that the board needed to know about.

"His e-mail very clearly makes it a board issue," Robinson said. "They need to take control of it and resolve it."

Meetings canceled

In October, Wilcox urged School Board members not to renew Robinson's contract. But when they voted 4-3 to keep Robinson, the two men told the board they would work together. They planned to meet on Monday mornings.

However, of the 16 possible Monday morning meetings since then, the two have sat down only twice, according to Robinson. He said Wilcox has canceled 13 of them.

Said Wilcox: "Our offices are 50 feet apart. ... Everyone in this organization finds a way to see me when they want to."

Of the biting e-mail that went to board members, Wilcox said he wrote it after a Robinson e-mail that took him to task for not consulting the attorney on the issue of law enforcement on campuses. The urgency of Robinson's e-mail was out of proportion to the situation and the issue could have been resolved with a brief conversation, Wilcox said.

Robinson said he tried to talk to Wilcox recently on the issue. He said he wanted to make sure the superintendent's direction to principals was consistent with board policy and state law after at least two principals called his office expressing confusion.

"My goal was to have a meeting of the minds with him and make sure we were on the same page," Robinson said. "I asked if he would give me five minutes to speak to him, and he did not give me the five minutes."

'Need to get it solved'

Of six board members interviewed, only Linda Lerner staked out a position, saying: "It's clear to me Dr. Wilcox cannot choose not to work with Mr. Robinson."

The board hired Wilcox in 2004. His base salary this year is $204,509. The board hired Robinson in 2005. His base salary is $170,562.

Board member Mary Brown said the rocky relationship between Wilcox and Robinson lasted throughout her term as chairwoman, from late November 2006 to November 2007. "We need to get it solved because there are too many issues on the table," she said.

Board member Janet Clark said the dispute had become a distraction.

"Not being there 24-7, not having access to their interactions, it's real hard to know which one is right and which one is wrong," she said. "We need to do something. This can't continue."

Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at tobin@sptimes.com or 727 893-8923.

On the Web

To see School Board attorney Jim Robinson's memo to the board, which also includes superintendent Clayton Wilcox's memo to Robinson, go to education.tampabay.com.