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Feuding schools officials ordered to see facilitator

Superintendent Wilcox, attorney Robinson consent.

By Thomas C. Tobin, Times Staff Writer
Published February 26, 2008


LARGO - The Pinellas County School Board directed Monday that its two top employees, superintendent Clayton Wilcox and School Board attorney Jim Robinson, find a facilitator to help them overcome an ongoing conflict that is limiting their ability to work together.

The decision drew board members into a surly back-and-forth. Five of the seven board members took sides in the dispute, and neither Wilcox nor Robinson exuded much confidence that their differences would easily fade away.

"This is getting really ugly, really fast," board member Carol Cook said near the end of a 30-minute discussion. As the board seemed ready to move to the next topic, board member Linda Lerner, who had spoken against Wilcox, tried to add a few words.

"Stop!" said board member Jane Gallucci, who had spoken against Robinson.

"No," responded Lerner, who later apologized.

By then, the decision had been made. Six of the seven board members said the two men needed to find someone to help mediate their differences, but that the district would not pay for the service. Both Wilcox and Robinson said later that they believed it was possible to find such a volunteer. Board member Peggy O'Shea agreed.

"It's not somebody who's going to make the decision for them," said O'Shea, a commercial arbitrator by trade. "It's somebody who's going to bring them to a decision."

O'Shea began Monday's discussion by trying to get the board to steer clear of the dispute. Best to let Wilcox and Robinson work it out themselves, she said. But Lerner and board members Janet Clark and Mary Brown said the board needed to take some action with its top two employees in a civil war. The trio's remarks tended to favor Robinson.

Gallucci and board chairwoman Nancy Bostock responded by defending Wilcox. Cook and O'Shea remained noncommittal. Bostock was the lone vote against a facilitator.

Robinson proposed a facilitator and asked the board to step in after he and Wilcox traded e-mails this month about how the district should respond to police investigations and arrests on public school campuses. Robinson's e-mail was critical of the superintendent for not consulting him on the issue.

Wilcox responded with an e-mail that said he lacked confidence in Robinson and strongly questioned his competence. He also wrote that he would avoid working with Robinson as much as possible and would rely on other attorneys for the district.

Robinson told the board in an e-mail that the superintendent could not go around the board attorney, who also serves as general counsel for the district.

Both Wilcox and Robinson have acknowledged that they have clashed over other issues for a long time. In October, when the board voted 4-3 to renew Robinson's contract, board members told the two to work out their differences.

In Monday's debate over the issue, Clark referred to Wilcox's e-mail as a bullying tactic. But Bostock said Robinson was the bully by forcing the issue before the board.

Bostock also said Wilcox had the right to seek the best advice possible, "and if he says he's lost confidence in the attorney, I put a lot of credibility in that." Lerner said Wilcox's actions created a "chilling effect" on the district that discouraged other employees from seeking Robinson's advice.

In brief remarks to the board Monday, Robinson explained his decision to make the dispute public.

"I did not do it to be a troublemaker but to bring to the board's attention to a matter that I felt the board needed to be aware of," he said. "All I seek now is not to fix blame, but what I seek is a fix."

He said facilitation "could be a useful tool," as it had been for other district issues.

"If the superintendent would be willing to do that, I would certainly recommend it," he said.

Wilcox took an angry tone when asked if he would work with a facilitator.

"I will, but I think at some point I'm going to tell my side of the tale," he told the board. "I've listened to the board make a decision without ever asking me a question on whether I agreed with any of what Mr. Robinson said to you. And, quite honestly, I don't agree with what Mr. Robinson said to you. I think he misled the board on a number of occasions, and I will make that very public very shortly, and then we'll facilitate the relationship."

He said he would send out an e-mail like Robinson did.

Lerner said he was free to do that but had no right to circumvent the School Board attorney.

Wilcox cited board policy, saying he did have the right. The board's policy manual states, "The superintendent may utilize the services of the school board attorney as the superintendent deems appropriate in the interest of the School Board."

In an interview later, Wilcox said he had cooled down and decided not to send the e-mail laying out his grievances with Robinson.

"It doesn't solve the problem; it inflames the problem," he said. "There's just too much important stuff going on."

He said he had asked the district's staff attorney to build a list of possible facilitators. Robinson planned to develop a list as well.

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