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Hinesley is now a topic statewide

The superintendent's new deal, in a time of budget cutting, draws attention in Tallahassee.

By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 2001

The superintendent's new deal, in a time of budget cutting, draws attention in Tallahassee.

The Pinellas County School Board has demanded changes in the state's school grading system. The board has spoken out against vouchers. They have routinely and loudly criticized legislators for inadequately funding public education.

On Tuesday, the board voted 4-2 to give Superintendent Howard Hinesley an expensive new contract just minutes before Hinesley described a new round of budget cuts the district is facing, including cutting $1.1-million more from central administration.

It didn't take long for the Legislature to notice.

On Wednesday, House Speaker Tom Feeney's spokeswoman sent an e-mail about Hinesley's salary and perks to legislators and news reporters around the state. Among them: Rep. Carlos Lacasa, R-Miami, the House's chief budget negotiator, and Karen Unger, Gov. Jeb Bush's campaign manager.

In the e-mail, Feeney spokeswoman Kimberly Stone attached a newspaper article about Hinesley's new contract and this note: "I thought you may find this story as amazing as I did. With all the rhetoric about school children having barely enough money to learn their ABC's, it seems as though administrative individuals such as Mr. Hinesley should tighten his own belt. Shocking stuff."

Board member Jane Gallucci predicted this would happen. She doesn't know how she and other Pinellas lobbyists will be able to retain their credibility in Tallahassee during the legislative session.

"This doesn't just affect us. This affects every school board in the state of Florida," Gallucci said. "It sends the wrong message to the Legislature."

The board agreed Tuesday to buy 54-year-old Hinesley a permanent life insurance policy that will cost up to $140,000 in premiums plus $60,000 in taxes. His salary will rise from $159,509 to $162,509, and the board will gradually contribute more to his tax-sheltered annuity, from $9,500 to $15,000.

Hinesley could not be reached for comment.

Board members said they got few calls about the contract Wednesday. But those who attended public events said people were murmuring unhappily about it. A district e-mail system was filled with chatter.

For her part, Feeney's spokeswoman described the e-mail as a "tongue-in-cheek thing," adding that neither she nor Feeney knows Hinesley personally. Stone said she is sure Hinesley is "exceptionally qualified" and acknowledged that it's the board's discretion to pay Hinesley what it wants.

Stone said she sends "articles of interest" to House members each day, adding that Feeney asked her to "keep that one filed for future reference."

"The speaker's constant mantra about education is about funding the classroom, teachers and students," Stone said. "Where we should look to reducing costs is in administration."

Unlike Gallucci, board member Lee Benjamin isn't worried about how the decision will be viewed long term. The amount of money the district is spending to keep Hinesley through December 2004 is a fraction of what the district needs to balance the budget in tough times.

"I'm just really surprised that Feeney would attack school boards over hiring a superintendent," he said. "Since when do they get involved in that?"

Board member Nancy Bostock said she looked at the big picture in voting for Hinesley's contract, considering that there also would be a price tag on finding a new superintendent. She has high hope that when legislators have more information and understand Pinellas' predicament, they won't hold Hinesley's contract against the county.

"They need to look at the entire decision, not just the amount of money," Bostock said. "I'm surprised it would warrant their attention."

Board member Carol Cook, who was a teacher before being elected to the board last year, said she thinks people in the schools feel betrayed. She supported the contract because she thought it would be best for the district in the long run.

Now she wonders how the board will repair its relationship with district employees, taxpayers and legislators who recently supported legislation capping administrative salaries.

"There are no winners in this situation at all," Cook said. "I truly hope there's not irreparable damage. We'll find out."

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