ST. PETERSBURG — With the numerous changes that have been made in Pinellas County schools this year, it’s easy to forget that Superintendent Michael Grego is still relatively new on the job, having marked his one-year anniversary Wednesday.
As the fourth superintendent since 2008, Grego didn’t have time to ease into his job, as he inherited a school district in need of stability and leadership.
There are still many challenges left to tick off his agenda, Grego said during a Wednesday meeting of the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club.
Talk to school district employees and School Board members, though, and it’s evident the honeymoon period isn’t quite over yet.
“In the three years I’ve been a School Board member, we’ve had three different superintendents, but now I truly feel we’re going to have the accountability and see the gains we’ve been hoping for,” said School Board member Terry Krassner, who has worked in the school district for 35 years and attended Pinellas schools growing up.
“He’s put so many things in place in a year, it’s mind-blowing. He’s high-energy. He takes everything in stride. He’s always pleasant, and he has truly been our problem-solver.”
After a year on the job, Pinellas County Schools’ budget went from a deficit to a surplus; teachers and support staff are getting “long overdue” raises, and the school district is the first in the area to offer new teachers a $40,000 starting salary. Top administrators have been switched around to new positions according to their abilities to make the school district run more efficiently, and the entire school district is moving toward accreditation. There’s a solid plan in place for addressing the growing achievement gap between white and minority students. There are multiple new career academies; and, for the first time in years, elementary and middle school students had summer school classes through the expansive Summer Bridge program, Krassner said. Perhaps most importantly, school leaders have a strategic plan with five clear goals to achieve this year instead of hundreds of half-completed initiatives, she said.
“We’re finally moving forward, and putting plans in place that we really believe will be in the best interest of the students but also aligning them with the mandates that are coming down from the state,” said School Board member Peggy O’Shea. “He’s been very good about focusing on students, improving academic achievements, which will always be our biggest challenge, and career readiness, but also understands that our work and our improvement should never be done.”
Grego said one of the school district’s most pressing issues this school year will be making sure teachers, administrators, School Board members and even he go through professional training to become proficient with new school standards, technologies and techniques to become better leaders. When he first started as superintendent, Grego said the systems and processes in place weren’t geared toward improvement, but he wants to make sure every employee recognizes that sticking with “the status quo is unacceptable.”
There’s a greater sense of urgency under Grego — not only to keep kids engaged in the classroom but to work with teachers, said Bruce Proud, the executive director of the Pinellas County teachers’ union. Proud, who has worked with the teachers’ union for several years and took over its leadership in January, said he hopes Grego sticks around long enough to follow through on his goals.
“Superintendents’ tenures in Florida seem to be only three to five years, and then they retire or move somewhere else, and it’s typical for the better ones to move on quickly,” Proud said. “I hope he’s with them for a while because there are still some tough conversations they still need to have about what they want and what the reality is.”
Though the 55-year-old Grego has worked in public education for more than 30 years, including stints as superintendent in Osceola County and Florida’s interim chancellor of K-12 education, he said he doesn’t plan on jumping ship anytime soon.
“I think the thing I’m most proud of this year is the thing I spoke so emphatically and passionately about during my interviews with the district, and that’s changing the culture, the level of trust and the ability to work together so we can grow as a district and take off,” Grego said.
“This first year, building trust with the principals, district staff and the board was critical to me because without it we’re always going to have the same problems. I hope everyone knows that I still feel as excited and lucky to be here as I did on that first day.”