Not Child's Pay

Last year was an exhausting one for Luanne J. Panacek.

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Last year was an exhausting one for Luanne J. Panacek. Panacek traveled to the state Capitol to advise Gov. Jeb Bush on community youth programs, helped his administration stage a juvenile-delinquency summit and cushioned the impact of a privatization initiative by showing his aides how to stretch Medicaid dollars for at-risk kids.

She joined a policy group devising a statewide agenda for families. Panacek helped bureaucrats allocate $1-million in child-welfare money so it wouldn't have to go back to Tallahassee unspent.

Panacek held a town meeting on girls in the juvenile justice system and published nationally on the topic. She attended conferences in Hawaii, North Carolina, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. (She had to drive back to Tampa from the nation's capital on Sept. 11.) In December, Panacek picked up the Child Welfare League of America's annual Women in Leadership Award at another conference on Sanibel Island.

Who is Dr. Luanne Panacek? The second coming of Dr. Benjamin Spock?

No, she is the executive director of the Children's Board of Hillsborough County. In 1988, Hillsborough voters raised their own property taxes and created the board to dole out the proceeds to children's service providers in the county. The children's board plans to spend nearly $25-million in 2002.

Panacek's desire to influence policy on a wide range of lofty fronts was heartily endorsed by her board of directors in November with a 20 percent pay hike. That followed 10 percent raises in each of the previous two years.

At $115,003, Panacek is among Florida's best-paid county children's service executives, trailing only her Palm Beach counterpart by $1,008. The comparable post in Pinellas County pays $95,485.

For all the state and national recognition, however, Panacek has accumulated a small chorus of decidedly local critics. That became apparent last fall when Panacek and the children's board solicited comments on how she was doing.

Some outside her agency might wonder if leadership confabs in Honolulu intrigue Panacek more than child neglect in Progress Village.

"Dr. Panacek is a warm and caring person," wrote an East Tampa dropout-prevention worker in evaluating the children's board executive director. But Panacek has too much faith in her staff. "A trusting management style invites misuse by staff members who are less concerned with public perception or with the satisfaction or dissatisfaction of any one agency or individual," wrote Althea England. "Should problems arise, the executive director is always the last to know."

During a Weekly Planet interview in January, Panacek acknowledged that she must tighten up on her managers. "I'm real proud of the work that gets done here. I'm also real clear about the improvements that need to be made," Panacek said. "Everybody internally will tell you that we need shoring up from a management perspective."

Indeed, a few of the brickbats came from her own shop. They were tossed reluctantly, not so much out of fear as sadness. Many of the board's 50 or so employees feel great affection for Panacek because they credit her with extracting the agency from mismanagement hell five years ago.

But recent reviews of Panacek hint that the agency has strayed from its original mission of simply evaluating those who serve troubled kids and ensuring scarce funds go to the wisest preventive approaches.

"Luanne is a community leader and wishes to focus on neighborhood services and regionalization," wrote a children's board staffer, who was allowed to vent anonymously as the board weighed Panacek's raise. "She is a good listener, but in too many instances she does "not walk the talk.' Or, changes her mind. Staff is tired of reorganizations. This has become a lab to test the most recent published ideas." In a county where those grappling with youth crime and delinquency perpetually scrape for money, it may surprise voters who birthed the children's board 14 years ago that their baby has grown into what critics contend is an impervious and somewhat out-of-touch think tank.

The 48-year-old Panacek devotes so much time and energy to children's services that her board directors and employees worry about her health. In a gesture of reassurance, Panacek noted in her annual accomplishments that she raised $7,500 for the American Stroke Association by training for and walking a half-marathon.

But concern lingers that the boss packs too much into her day, to the detriment of her well-being and that of the children's board.

"As seen by her overbooked schedule, Lu needs to delegate more," wrote Nancy Delance, a communications director for the board, in her Panacek evaluation. But Delance questioned if Panacek's aides are up to it.

Staff deficiencies notwithstanding, Panacek refuses to lighten her load, even with a family history of early deaths from heart disease and stroke. "I'm divorced because I'm a workaholic," she said. "I've tried real hard in the last couple of years not to feel guilty about that. It does not make me dysfunctional or sick because I love what I do and I really get a lot out of it. I think that is my reason for being here."

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