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Tuesday, Jul 22, 2014

Hiring of new Pinellas schools’ technology chief raises questions

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LARGO — Pinellas County Schools’ new technology chief — a former middle school principal and elementary school teacher — started his new job Wednesday, but only after School Board members agreed their assistant superintendent of technology and information systems no longer needed extensive experience with computer and information technology systems.

School Board members voted unanimously Tuesday to hire Thomas Lechner, principal of Seminole Middle School, for the position and changed the job’s qualifications simultaneously, without any discussion. Under the previous job description, Lechner likely would not have been considered qualified.

The changes to the job description, which were added to the School Board’s meeting agenda on Friday, require the assistant superintendent to have a master’s degree in educational leadership, business administration or a related field with three years of administrative experience and “technical and administrative personnel management.” Before, the job required a more technical background, with a college degree or sufficient business and industry experience in either computer science, technology systems integration and technology information services.

While the qualifications changed, the position’s responsibilities — providing technology guidance to the school district, directing all data processing and information activities and enhancing the school district’s systems and software — did not.

The revamped qualifications were timely and more closely resemble what neighboring school districts ask of their chief information officers, Superintendent Michael Grego said. In Hillsborough County, for example, the only computer skills the school district requires of its chief information and technology officer is experience with Microsoft Office.

Grego said he did not change the “antiquated” qualifications for Pinellas County Schools’ technology chief so he could give the job to Lechner. He wanted to find someone with strong leadership skills, he said.

“To be highly effective, the candidates had to have some level of educational connection, because you’re dealing with technology integrated into the business of schooling, not insurance or some other company,” Grego said. “I think one of the big gaps plaguing this district is the disconnect between our information systems and the school principals and administrators that need that data to improve their school.

“I want job descriptions that cast a very wide net so the interview process can narrow down the best candidate, not just the opposite where the job description only qualifies one or two people,” Grego said. “Tom Lechner knows how to drive schools through technology and performance data, and that’s really what the position needs.”

Lechner will divide his time between his new position and his role as principal of Seminole Middle, a job he’s held since 2007, until the school district can find a qualified replacement, Grego said. Lechner taught in Pinellas County elementary schools from 1986 to 1995, starting his career as a teacher and coach at Shorecrest Prepatory School in 1981. He has also worked as an assistant principal at Carwise Middle School, Tarpon Springs Middle School and Oak Grove Middle School and currently teaches introductory education courses at St. Petersburg College. He holds a master’s degree in physical education from the University of South Florida and a bachelor’s degree in physical education from the University of Florida, as well as a specialist’s degree in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University.

By comparison, Lechner’s predecessor, Norman Kelton, has more of a technical background, with a focus on IT. He now works as a systems analyst for the school district and will report to Lechner. Lechner, who makes $91,600 as a school principal, will make in his new job about the same as Kelton did — about $103,000.

Grego said he decided to make the change because he wanted someone with more leadership and school experience in the job, not just a technical background.

That could be especially important now that school districts across Florida are expected to implement the technology-driven Common Core educational standards by next school year. The new standards place a large emphasis on online learning and testing, and schools are inching closer to the days where textbooks will be replaced with iPads, homework is completed online, and even weekly classroom tests are conducted with a computer instead of a pencil and paper. On Grego’s recent job evaluation by School Board members, many expressed a desire to see more technological improvements throughout the school district.

Lechner’s hiring raises questions, especially considering past complaints that the school district’s administration is top-heavy. An independent audit conducted last school year, after former Superintendent Julie Janssen lost her job, suggested that many administrative positions seem to have been created for specific people.

The school district never advertised for the assistant superintendent’s job. Because Lechner is now part of the leadership team that reports directly to the superintendent and weighs in on top school district decisions, Grego conducted the hiring process and had the ability to tap whomever he wanted, he said.

Grego said his search for candidates for the position was made easier because of two national searches for directors in the IT department this year that provided “a good indication of who was out there” and conversations with state education leaders.

Lechner submitted a cover letter and resume for the position on Oct. 31. After multiple informal interviews with candidates, Grego said he is confident Lechner will “bring our instructional technology to the next level.”

“I’ve been in charge of and worked with school information systems for 10 to 20 years,” Lechner said.

“I’m going to focus on the district’s vision of high student achievement and how we can best support schools’ teaching and learning with technology and information. There are quite a few goals in the district’s strategic plan tied to technology and information, and the first step will be making improvements to make the department more efficient.”

adawson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-9851

Twitter: @adawsonTBO

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