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Pinellas to discuss separate staff attorney for superintendent



Last week’s Pinellas school board workshop about Superintendent Julie Janssen’s performance raised an interesting side issue: Should one of the district’s attorneys, who now report to general counsel Jim Robinson, report to Janssen as a “staff attorney” instead?

It’s not clear if board members are headed in that direction. But enough of them are asking questions that the topic will be aired at the July 14 workshop.

Board chair Carol Cook told The Gradebook today she has a couple of concerns about the district's legal structure. One of them: Making sure the superintendent has a “neutral person to go to, to get questions answered from an attorney that is separate from someone who answers to the school board.”

Cook referenced the recent situation where Janssen sought legal advice from the Hillsborough school board attorney.

“Because the school board was the one who called for the review (of Janssen’s performance) … that could put Mr. Robinson in a difficult situation. Because his bosses called for this,” Cook said. “So where does the superintendent go for an impartial answer to questions? She didn’t have anyone. In the past, they would have gone to the staff attorney to find out those answers separate from the school board attorney.”

The board voted for the current structure in 2009. Prior to then, a staff attorney reported to the superintendent instead of the general counsel. Two attorneys serve in the legal office with Robinson.

Cook voted for the change in 2009. She said she had concerns, but was swayed by arguments that the move would save money.

Cook also said strains between Janssen and Robinson - which surfaced in the Carol Thomas situation and others - will be part of the workshop talk in July.

"Everybody has their own different perspective as to the degree of tension. (But) part of it is going to have to be, in this discussion, is this part of why things need to be restructured?" she said. "Is it purely someone's legal advice ... and the other person's not taking that advice? Is it a situation where the legal advice is meant to steer the thought of board members as opposed to saying, 'Be aware of this'? That's some of the conversations we need to have."

Board member Peggy O’Shea said the district's legal structure could work either way. But "there are times when you do need a separation," she said at the workshop.

Board member Janet Clark said this week that it may be time to separate the legal lines again. "If we had a staff attorney and a board attorney, who are not having to speak with one voice … I think it would be a good thing," she said. "I don’t know if that’s where we are (headed) right now … but I’m willing to listen to it.”

Board member Linda Lerner was less enthusiastic. “We’re one district. We need one legal counsel in one place,” she said. Going to a different structure “could get complicated.”

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