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Pinellas superintendent is making the grade

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Published:   |   Updated: July 8, 2014 at 11:21 AM

— When Michael Grego showed up for his first superintendent interview nearly 18 months ago, Pinellas County’s longest serving school board member knew he was the answer to mending their divided school district before he opened his mouth.

“He just had piles of information for us — research and data and plans he had pored through about the district, but he also had a very strong desire to lead our schools,” board member Linda Lerner said.

“He didn’t talk about what did or didn’t happen in the past, he looked at the data and where he wanted to take it. I’ve been in this job for a long time and I have to tell you there is trust in his leadership and an optimism throughout the community,” she said.

Grego knew, too, that after more than 30 years in education, including assistant superintendent in Hillsborough County, superintendent in Osceola County and Florida’s interim chancellor of K-12 education, he had found a home in Pinellas, he said.

Since taking over the school district in September 2012, Grego has become a frequent speaker on education policy in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. His face is a common sight at local events and in magazines and newspapers, and his gentle, even-metered voice even made it to a recent National Public Radio broadcast.

And any time a job opens in Tallahassee, school district employees begin to chatter, “Do you think Grego will go?” board Chairwoman Carol Cook said.

Yet Grego last week signed a contract extension that keeps him at the helm until June 30, 2020 — five years longer than his original contract. The board also may vote to extend his contract an additional year each June, and his salary of $252,000 plus benefits, remains unchanged.

“This is my dream job,” Grego said. “I got caught up in the concept of directly observing the improvement of a community. I don’t know any other line of work that gives you that opportunity to leave a lasting impact on an entire community. And though it’s a high stress job, it comes with tremendous rewards I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.”

Running the largest business in Pinellas certainly comes with “a lot of headaches,” he said. He’s in charge of 15,000 employees, and feeds and transports more than 102,000 students each day. There are big problems the district has yet to tackle, and myriad initiatives to maintain, but for the first time in a long time all the key players seem to be on the same page, Cook said.

“By almost any measure, we’re making progress in the direction we wanted to go,” Cook said.

Graduation rates, career readiness and FCAT scores have increased across the board, and all Pinellas high schools earned an A or B grade from the state this school year for the first time in the district’s history. The schools’ budget went from a deficit to a surplus, and teachers and support staff are getting “long overdue” raises. Top administrators have been switched to new positions based on their abilities to make the district run more efficiently, and the entire district is moving toward accreditation.

There also is a plan to address the growing achievement gap between white and minority students. There are multiple new career academies, with a 60 percent increase in students earning industry certifications, and school leaders have a strategic plan with five clear goals to achieve this year instead of hundreds of half-completed initiatives.

The school district has won awards for its school nutrition programs, and also has been recognized as one of the top 20 in the nation for providing choices in education, board member Peggy O’Shea said. Science departments went from having 15 school STEM clubs to 115. The year has become a blur of “little celebrations,” she said.

The average urban superintendent tends to stay for four years, according to Council of the Great City Schools. Having Grego locked in for six more years makes sense, board member Rene Flowers said.

“To know there will be consistent leadership when we have had such a roller coaster of leadership in the past five years, I think, is key,” Flowers said. “He’s always very easy to talk to, always out in the community, and I think that shows that he wants to be a partner, and that’s refreshing.”

One example of that willingness to listen was the adoption of Flowers’ pet project, a joint agreement with local police municipalities to curtail the number of arrests in schools.

When board members constantly cited teacher retention as one of their biggest challenges, Grego upped starting teacher’s salary to $40,000 a year, the highest in the Tampa area, to attract the “best and brightest.” The school district has begun holding open houses and job fairs for potential teachers, and an extensive teacher training program over the summer hones existing teachers’ skills while giving them classroom practice in the Summer Bridge program. A new partnership with St. Petersburg College will allow education students the opportunity to train in the summer school — a paid internship and recruiting effort in one, Grego said.

The sense of urgency with which the school district has begun to tackle its long-standing problems is a dramatic change in philosophy from past leaders. As the fourth superintendent since Howard Hinesley retired in 2004, Grego inherited a district in need of stability. Grego was hired under a three-year contract to replace interim Superintendent John Stewart, who came out of retirement when the board fired Julie Janssen after three years as superintendent.

The enthusiastic new superintendent has to consider the practical effects of his plans, said Bruce Proud, executive director of the teachers’ union. When Grego decided to start the sweeping new Summer Bridge program last February, school district officials had less than four months to put the pieces in place.

“There has been an openness to discuss large districtwide issues. However, I think there have been decisions made and things put in place and programs rolled out without fully vetting what the implications are for employees, particularly teachers, which has required us to scramble to catch up,” Proud said.

“I’m not sure if you would call it open collaboration at this point. ... Although the relationship with the superintendent and the school board has been a positive one, I’m not sure it’s changed the culture in the district just yet.”

That change will come, especially with renewed relationships with local businesses and organizations, Lerner said. The school district has stronger relationships now with groups such as the Juvenile Welfare Board, the Pinellas Education Foundation and St. Petersburg College than perhaps at any other time in her 20 year tenure on the board, she said.

Grego, a native of Long Island, New York, is the first in his family to get a college education. His father was a machinist and his mother was a homemaker until she went back to work. His modest upbringing taught him the importance of “living within your means,” he said, a theme that has brought financial stability to the school district for the first time in years and has enabled officials to “finally kick off some new things,” O’Shea said.

And with both of his children in college — his daughter, 19, at the University of Florida, and his son, 21, at the University of North Florida — one of his biggest achievements has been reconnecting with the students and teachers he’s charged with serving, he said. Grego’s calendar is freckled with nightly parent meetings, focus group meetings with teachers, and monthly principal meetings. He has visited each school in the district to watch his plans in action, and is now on his second trip around.

“When I first came in I knew one of the biggest challenges I would face would be forming strong relationships with our principals and teachers and school based leaders, so that was my plan,” Grego said. “Most strong relationships are built on spending quality time together and a lot of listening. ”

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