A weekend interview with ...
... interim Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen. A 28-year veteran of the district, Janssen, 59, has worked as a math teacher, school principal and deputy superintendent. Now she'll take the reins of control, at least temporarily, as Clayton Wilcox leaves in June. Janssen spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek via e-mail about the district's future and her own.
Why did you want to become interim superintendent?
When I accepted the role as deputy superintendent two years ago, I knew there would be times when I would fill in for the superintendent in his absence. As deputy, I already am integrally involved in all levels of decision making. When Dr. Wilcox announced he was leaving, offering to step up as interim was the right thing to do to maintain consistency in the district.
The district is headed for some tough times, not the least of which being the budget cuts. Talk about the difficulties of taking over the top job now.
Managing a district in times of extremely limited education funding is challenging and difficult in a many respects. Based on the state's financial projections there doesn't appear to be any relief in the near future. It's difficult to identify areas to trim costs when we already have made substantial cuts in the range of $32-million over the past two years. Facing an additional $37-million next year means there's a good possibility that some positions could be eliminated and employees reassigned. Our district has faced these challenges before and we'll work through them together. I'm confident our finance team will assist us in looking at all possible solutions before submitting a balanced budget for board approval.
The district's employee unions have suggested a morale crisis exists. How do you intend to improve employee relations?
Whenever people are faced with something that impacts them financially or a change in leadership there's a level of insecurity that can affect morale. As interim superintendent, I will continue to reassure them that we value and respect their input and that we are listening to their concerns.
Many parents have complained about the district's new student assignment policy. How do you see the new rules working, and how do you keep families happy within them?
Prior to the board approving a new student assignment plan, parents and community members had the opportunity to give input at a number of community meetings. A task force that met for almost two years spent time requesting input and analyzing parent surveys before making recommendations to the school board. The new plan reflects what parents told us - it assigns children closer to home and preserves "choice" options through magnet, fundamental and career academy programs.
From our perspective, the new plan that primarily affects entry-level grades has been well received. Any time a district transitions to a new student assignment plan and boundary lines are redrawn there will be some families who don't agree with the boundary lines as drawn. Overall, we've seen an increase in families returning from private schools who feel the new plan meets the needs of their children.
What good things are going on in Pinellas schools? How can you expand upon these?
We have a number of initiatives that create exciting learning opportunities for students and ultimately will boost student achievement. Literacy programs on the elementary level and AVID, a program that encourages students to take more rigorous course work in middle and high schools, are helping move students forward academically. We continue to show upward trends on state academic performance assessments. Through collaboration with the Pinellas Education Foundation and local businesses we're launching Centers of Excellence in all high schools by 2010 to expand our successful career technical programs. Our two Pinellas Technical Education Centers have been redesigned. Local funding enhancements through referendum dollars have allowed us to make strides the areas of reading, art, music and technology. Students are learning in state-of-the art classrooms all across the district. Our teachers, administrators, support staff members and students continue to win national and state awards.
Our leadership team will stay the course and continue to seek innovative teaching strategies that make learning relevant for our kids and prepares them for the future – whether they enter the workplace or go on to continue their education. We'll continue to evaluate our programs and focus on those initiatives that result in learning gains for students.
Where do you see the Pinellas School District headed during your time as interim superintendent? What will be your key initiatives?
With the impending budget cuts, we will look for opportunities to reinvent ourselves and ways to do business more efficiently. We'll continue to be educationally and fiscally responsible to provide a great education to the children of this county. Strengthening business and community partnerships will enable us to provide innovative programs for students. I also look forward to continuing the dialogue with parent and community groups who have signaled to us their willingness to help our students achieve academic success.
Do you expect to seek the job permanently? Why or why not?
Right now as interim superintendent my focus is maintaining the momentum in the district and, together with the leadership team, to guide us through the next several months. I have said from the beginning that I would accept the interim position under whatever terms the school board approves. Now that the board has set definite parameters for the application process, I'll take those into consideration before making a decision.