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Department head for Pinellas schools under fire

Since joining the Pinellas County School District in September 2009, Janet Hernandez has earned the ire of her employees and been embroiled in an investigation over her husband's job application.

Now superintendent Julie Janssen is proposing a fix: moving Hernandez from one top job to another.

Hernandez, 54, left a teaching job in Manatee County to become Pinellas' director of professional development, a critical job given the growing spotlight on teacher quality and Janssen's goal of making the district's teacher training programs a national model.

But under Hernandez's direction, the department descended into chaos and a "culture of fear," according to a rare staff survey ordered by top district officials. Employees said their new boss bullied them. They said she "frequently references senior leadership as her ally."

Janssen said Hernandez made mistakes in a department that was resentful over big changes the superintendent had ordered, including some staff transfers. Those mistakes merited removal, but not firing, Janssen said.

In August, she made Hernandez the tentative director of dropout prevention, another crucial sector given the district's 77 percent graduation rate and plans for a revamp. The job pays the same as her previous gig: $76,549 a year.

"This is Jan's second chance, and I'm hoping the board will endorse it," Janssen said. "Janet knows that I am watching her."

Hernandez's proposed transfer is set to go before the School Board tonight. At least two board members — Robin Wikle and chairwoman Janet Clark — say they will vote no.

"I don't see what Dr. Janssen sees," Clark said. "I'm not willing to let that happen to another department."

Hernandez declined to comment.

Janssen and Hernandez (she went by Janet Roland when the district hired her; she married in June) know each other from graduate school at the University of South Florida.

Hernandez was an assistant principal at a Manatee middle school when she applied to work in Pinellas in May 2008, the same month Janssen became interim superintendent. She listed Janssen as a reference.

The new head of Pinellas schools gave her a glowing recommendation: In all 32 skill categories on a district reference form, Janssen checked, "Does it as well as the best I've seen."

The superintendent said she saw Hernandez in action when they taught homeless students as part of their graduate work. She found her bright and capable. But she said she had not seen her in perhaps eight years when an e-mail from Hernandez arrived in 2008: "I'd love to come work for you in Pinellas."

Janssen said she played no role in Hernandez's hiring in 2009 and contrary to perceptions, the two are not especially close. She said she reacted swiftly when she heard Hernandez was telling employees otherwise.

"Absolutely I called her on that," she said. "She should not lead people to believe that she's getting any favors from me."

According to her resume, Hernandez, a 17-year educator, has held eight public school jobs in the last 10 years. Among them: assistant principal jobs at four schools for a total of 4 1/2 years. That's the heart of her administrative experience.

She returned to teaching in 2008 after she was not reappointed as assistant principal. Her then-boss said the decision was due to budget constraints.

Eight months into her Pinellas job, employee complaints prompted district officials to order a survey of Hernandez's staff. She oversaw a dozen employees.

Just before that, school officials hired an outside investigator to look into her role in filling out a district job application for her then-partner, now husband.

Jerry Hernandez, then a principal at a Manatee middle school, submitted his application in August 2009. But it did not become an issue until March.

"I was just reading the blogs regarding John Hopkins," Janet Hernandez wrote to Janssen on March 3, according to e-mails obtained by the Times. "What about sending Jer in there for the rest of year as an additional administrator on assignment to clean up the discipline?"

The following week, Janssen and other top officials interviewed Jerry Hernandez. A few days later, the district appointed him assistant principal at Hopkins, district e-mails say. He was even given a start date: April 5.

But things unraveled just as fast. District officials raised concerns about Jerry Hernandez's criminal history — which includes an aggravated assault charge from 1987 — and how he had reported it on his application.

Janssen rescinded the job offer — and ordered the investigation into whether Janet Hernandez helped fudge the application.

It asked: "Have you ever had a certificate or license suspended or revoked or have you been placed on probation by the certifying or licensing agency?" Whoever filled it out checked "No."

But the state had sanctioned Jerry Hernandez. In 1997, it put his teaching certificate on probation for three years because of his past criminal charges.

According to the investigator, Janet Hernandez said she helped fill out the application because "her handwriting is more aesthetically pleasing than his." She said she not did not recall checking "yes" or "no" on the questions that required such answers.

But according to the investigator, she also said Jerry Hernandez would have been correct in answering no because "he was on probation as part of a settlement agreement whereby a certificate was issued to him, which she distinguished from having a certificate and then being placed on probation in some subsequent disciplinary proceeding."

When the investigator asked for a second interview, Janet Hernandez refused. The investigator initially recommended she be disciplined for violating district policy that requires employees to cooperate with investigators. He also wasn't buying her argument for marking "no."

In the end, Hernandez met again with the investigator, who concluded it was unclear who in fact checked "no." No disciplinary action was imposed.

But board members Wikle and Clark said questions linger.

"There's still doubt about whether this application was processed honestly," Wikle said.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds and staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report.

Department head for Pinellas schools under fire 09/14/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 14, 2010 1:06am]
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