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A Times Editorial

Kelly best choice for school superintendent

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 1, 2000

Take a superintendent of schools who has met with limited success during his first term in office, add a longtime administrator who once was the superintendent's confidant, and mix those insiders with an irreverent outsider who has earned a measure of support no one would have guessed. The result is a recipe for the most divisive and unpredictable race on this year's local ballot.

Pete Kelly, a Republican, is in the fight of his political life to remain superintendent of the Citrus County School District. He is being challenged by Democrat David Hickey, the principal at Crystal River Middle School and Kelly's former assistant superintendent, and Ansel Briggs, a self-employed community activist who has no political party affiliation.

After carefully considering the candidates, their platforms and their records of public service, we recommend voters retain Kelly for another four-year term.

In several respects, the past four years have been disappointing for Kelly. He has a number of unsuccessful initiatives, including a botched land purchase for a new school and staff reorganizations. In addition, he was unable to persuade the School Board to make Withlacoochee Technical Institute a charter school, and has dealt with a series of budget shortfalls and turnover in key management positions.

But achievements in the district have been plentiful under Kelly, and because most of those successes have had a direct impact on classroom education, they outweigh the failures.

For instance, under Kelly:

The district's attendance policy was revamped, resulting in the lowest rate of absenteeism ever. The dropout rate is substantially lower. The Renaissance Center was opened, which took unruly students out of traditional classrooms and placed them in a stricter environment where their behavior can be modified. A zero-tolerance policy for drugs and weapons was instituted. Employees at all levels were included in a collaborative decision-making process, commonly known as the strategic plan, which will be used as a blueprint for problem-solving and long-range planning. Relations with the teachers union have improved greatly because Kelly inked a two-year contract, and also kept his word by offering the teachers extra money after the contract was settled.

Hickey has downplayed most of those successes, choosing instead to attack Kelly's shortcomings. But sometimes Hickey's criticisms only tell half the story. For example, Hickey has complained that Kelly has had too many resignations from his administrative staff. That is true, to a point. There actually was more turnover under former Superintendent Jimmy Hughes. And Hickey fails to remind voters that two of the key desertions under Kelly were he and his campaign manager, Roberta Long.

In that vein, Hickey has criticized Kelly for hiring about 75 extra employees one year, then laying them off the next. Voters should know that occurred while Hickey was the assistant superintendent and Long was the management services director, giving at least the illusion that they went along with it.

We fear that Hickey's candidacy represents a return to the days when decisions were made in an autocratic fashion and employees, teachers and parents were shut out of the process even more than they are now.

Meanwhile, Briggs is the idea man in this race. He has more suggestions, some of them rather unconventional, for education reform than Kelly and Hickey combined. Those lifelong educators may understand bureaucracy, but Briggs understands people. Both could take a lesson from Briggs about how to connect with the public and young people.

That said, we are reluctant to support Briggs for superintendent because he lacks the administrative and management background that is essential to running what amounts to a large public corporation. This is Briggs' second bid for this job and, as we did in 1996, we encourage him to seek a seat on the School Board. There he could advance his ideas and express his opinions about how the administration is performing. In the alternative, we would encourage Kelly or Hickey, if one wins this election, to look for jobs in their administration where Briggs would be an asset.

Our biggest criticism of Kelly is that sometimes he is not an effective communicator, and he needs to do a better job of team-building. In particular, he needs to surround himself with capable professionals he can trust to carry out his plans without undermining him.

But those concerns are not enough to withhold our support for an honest, hard-working public servant who has grown significantly in this job. We recommend Kelly to voters Nov. 7.

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