A weekend interview with Pinellas School Board member Robin Wikle
Elected to the Pinellas County School Board in 2008, Robin Wikle frequently makes reference to the fact that she's still learning the processes that dictate the way the school district runs. The Tarpon Springs resident speaks from the board table with a certain politeness, often apologizing in advance for her questions of administrators and fellow board members. Yet, in the last several months, Wikle became a critical voice and vote. Her heightening frustration with superintendent Julie Janssen's leadership appeared to mark a turning point for the board as it grappled with what, if any, action to take regarding the future of Janssen's employment. In May, she was the first to call for an immediate review of Janssen's contract. In June, she was the first to say she was ready to ask for Janssen's resignation if the chief didn't show improvement within two months. And, on Tuesday, she was the one who finally made the motion to fire Janssen, getting a 7-0 vote of approval. Wikle spoke Friday with reporter Jeff Solochek about how she handled the mounting conflict, how it changed her as a board member and how it will affect her leadership moving forward.
You've become a different person on the board in a sense. You're always polite. But by June it was clear that you hit this point. You had concerns, you were saying them forcefully, repeatedly. What made you change the way you were dealing with stuff? What was your tipping point?
Well, my tipping point would be the definition of insanity. You keep doing the same things over and over again, and you get the same results. I came on the board for opportunities for kids, to help kids and to increase academic achievement. So I got a little frustrated with the process. I got frustrated with the slowness of how we change sometimes. I don't think I really changed. I hope I'm still polite. I just felt like enough time had gone by for the expectations to be met in leadership. And they weren't being met. We needed to go forward. And it looked like that was what we were going to have to do.
I know that you've spoken before about how difficult it can be to talk about these issues with the top administrators, when they're people who you work with closely, and they might become your professional friends. Did you have a personal-professional relationship with Dr. Janssen and did that affect how you dealt with her at all?
When you're an employer and you hire and fire, you can do that in a small room. You can sit together and talk about the weaknesses and strengths, and that person goes on to the next (thing). It doesn't work out and the needs don't fit, that employee moves on. Doing it publicly is a little bit of a different animal. Dr. Janssen is an extremely nice lady. We absolutely could be friends and were friends. We have the same interests, outside activities. That made it more difficult when it came down to me being accountable for one of the main responsibilities in my job description, which is hiring and firing a competent superintendent.
How did you wind up taking the charge on that and pushing things forward?
I don't know if I would consider it a leader. ... I think you have to self-reflect as a board member. We should do that all the time -- every meeting, every workshop. And I do that. And my number one goal after a meeting or workshop is to make sure I brought value to what we're doing, and that I brought value to the district. I have brought this up to the board, that I have a mantra that I made up. It's silly. ... It's called the E Effect. I want to educate children, equip our teachers, empower our administrators and enhance our district. So when you use that every day and you think about it and self-reflect, you have to make sure you can answer all of those questions yes. And it's a four-year term. You are privileged to be elected to that term, and you are also responsible and accountable to your constituents and the children for that term. ... (She breaks briefly and returns) ... Where was I?
You were talking about why you decided it was time for you to speak up.
I did. And you know a lot of people have talked about the process. There's never a good process for firing, for letting an employee go, a very important employee. I think the board was very diligent and the process was followed the best you can do when you're doing this in a public venue. We gave areas of concern. We set some benchmarks. We gave a timeline. Once again, that was all done in public, which it should be. It's part of the transparency and the position that we all hold and that the superintendent holds. For me, it's my first time. So the media took it to a whole new level. And no disrespect to you. That's part of what you guys have to do. So I'll have to self-reflect and make sure that hopefully I didn't add to that media level.
Let me ask you this. Now you're looking at the interim superintendent position and then the permanent superintendent position after that. Do you think that what you've learned from what happened with Dr. Janssen that you have a different perspective now on how to pursue those two arrangements?
I can't speak for the board and, again, this is my first time through the process for hiring a superintendent. But absolutely. ... I think we should be very clear on what we expect, what our intentions are, what our framework, our way of work as a board. Because it is not fair to our superintendent, it is not fair to our students, if we as a board (are) not clear on the direction that the board wants to go and what their expectations are. That's where it's very important to have an interim superintendent while we get a clear vision, a clear plan -- I call it a framework of how we're going to work. ... The most important thing is how we're going to pay attention to the results of our initiatives. And I did meet the interim yesterday and I was very very honest with him on him knowing people and that part of it. ... I gave him my vision. ... I don't know if I would change a lot, because I was honest with Dr. Janssen from the beginning when we had the one-on-ones. I never held back on our one-on-ones together even to the point of encouraging things when I felt it was appropriate. I held back publicly. I will not do that next time. I will bring out my concerns sooner, at the board table. That's a problem. Because it's not like I can go to other board members and say, 'Hey, I have a concern.' Because we are restricted legally from speaking to each other about things that might come to a vote. So you really only can bring up concerns from the board table. And that's when it goes viral.
That's true. I've seen that happen and not happen on boards. ...
I've never suprised Dr. Janssen from the board table. I think that's important. We shouldn't have surprises at the board table. Even if we're prepared to disagree or agree with each other, I don't think we should have surprises from the district.
Was it a surprise when members came forward and they already had a name for an interim?
Yeah. There you go. (laughs) No. I had a call from an outside person that they had put his name in. I am assuming every other board member had the same call. When Ms. Clark brought a motion to the table I was surprised, but I wasn't surprised. Because you can't really talk about a plan, so you have to develop a plan at the table.
Should it have been done in a more slow and deliberate way, like some others said?
You know what? Because we are going to have the opportunity to come back to the table on Tuesday and share our concerns, I'm okay. I am comfortable with the way it went. I had to yield to the wisdom of the majority of the board who had been through this before. I have a vote on Aug. 30 to not agree with this interim superintendent. My vote counts and I am very comfortable with that. I think Ms. Lerner mentioned that this put a placeholder in. That was okay. Because if we hadn't put a placeholder in, then outside entities would have tried to put the placeholder in for us. Do you see what I mean? so the board should be the driver on who we hire as our next superintendent. We should be responsible for that. So it was quick. It was a placeholder. But we have given ourselves time before the superintendent even is done to change that placeholder. Or remove it. So I think it gave the board the driver's seat.
Now as you move forward, what have you picked up and how do you change board business?
I think for me I am hoping to do board business, get out of the operational side. I got an operational overload because I wanted information, so I had to drill down a little more than I should. ... So I look forward to the board having this clear framework and expectations, then we're back to governance and policy, which is our main responsibility. ... I think we have a diverse board with very good synergy, and I truly believe everyone shows up to promote and encourage academic achievement. We all might have different opinions on how to accomplish that goal. But I am very proud to be part of this board. I know that's kind of cheesy. But I really mean it.