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Ethics complaint says Pinellas schools chief Janssen violated public records laws

Pinellas County school superintendent Julie Janssen is the target of an ethics complaint that charges she and members of her staff ignored legal advice and "deliberately" withheld public records.

Activist Sami Scott, a vocal Janssen critic, said she filed complaints Friday against Janssen, deputy superintendent Jim Madden and associate superintendent Bill Lawrence after reviewing e-mails, iPad messages and other communication provided by the district.

The St. Petersburg Times requested and received some of the same communications between district officials on Aug. 11 as they prepared reports for a meeting on Bradley vs. Pinellas County Schools, the district's civil rights case.

Among the reports: suspension data first requested by a Times reporter on July 8. (It showed fewer suspensions in 2010-11 compared to the previous year.)

As officials determined when to send information to the school board, the plaintiffs and the media, school board attorney Jim Robinson advised that documents should be made public without delay "since it is available and has been requested by public records request."

Madden told Janssen the suspension report would be released earlier than other data.

Her response: "That is ridiculous. Why are we asking legal when we should release reports to media? The mediation process and the board members are first and foremost for us to inform. I suggest we hold all these reports until the board receives it and then we present the data to plaintiffs and then the press. We must stop duplicating efforts to get information out."

Both Janssen and her attorney on Friday said she did nothing wrong. Attorney Ron Meyer called the questions over the way Janssen handled the public records matter "reckless accusations" and "perhaps even defamatory."

Janssen said her instruction was directed at the entire Bradley progress report and not specifically at the Times request.

"I didn't decide to withhold anything," said Janssen, who on Thursday offered to resign her position effective Sept. 2 amid rising criticism over her leadership.

After the initial request for the suspension report, the Times made five more written requests seeking it. Allen Mortimer, director of planning and policy, responded saying the district was working and expected to have it ready for the Bradley meeting on Aug. 11.

The Times made another request early that morning. Mortimer sent a link to the data to staff in the general counsel's office also that morning.

The Times received an e-mail from the general counsel's office in the afternoon with a link to the information.

Robinson said there was no intentional delay by his staff and noted that his office has recently taken over the responsibility of responding to public records requests to help improve the district's response time.

Also on Aug. 11, Scott requested related information on how black students were performing on Advanced Placement tests. Lawrence responded saying the data would not be available until he and other district officials met with the civil rights plaintiffs later in the afternoon.

Scott said she received the information about 10 hours later, but Scott says she should have gotten it when it was ready — regardless of when it was being presented to the plaintiffs.

Florida law requires that access to public records be provided within a reasonable period of time.

Janssen, Madden and Lawrence all maintain they met that criteria. "As far as I know … the law doesn't mean that you drop everything and send it," Janssen said Friday.

In a followup Aug. 15 e-mail to Janssen, her staff and the School Board, Robinson said the only permissible delay is the reasonable amount of time it takes to retrieve the record and redact any exempt information.

"The (Supreme Court) held that any sort of delay, no matter how short, impermissibly interferes with the public's right to examine the records," Robinson wrote.

He added: "When the requested records are ready they must be given to the requesting party even if that means they are given before a workshop or meeting at which they are to be discussed or presented. Of course, the board may be given copies simultaneously and advised of the public records request."

On Friday, Madden said the data Scott requested was ready that morning, while Lawrence said he was "still making changes to the files and putting them on USB drives for the board members." Lawrence also said he didn't think Scott's request was a "public records request" but a "friendly request for information" because her e-mail asked for the data "at your earliest convenience."

Janssen said she didn't see Scott's request that morning but having since read it had a similar impression: "In my opinion, 'at your earliest convenience' doesn't mean right now."

Board members said they hadn't read the e-mails themselves, but believe public records requests should be fulfilled as the law requires.

During a special meeting Tuesday, board members will decide whether to accept Janssen's offer to resign if they pay her a year of her $200,000 salary plus benefits — or terminate her "with just cause" or "without cause."

Firing her with just cause, which could include willful violation of public record laws, would allow the board to end her contract without paying severance.

Letting her go without just cause would mean the board would still have to pay a year's salary and benefits, but those payments could be reduced if Janssen got another job.

But even board members who say they feel they have just cause to fire Janssen — absent any public records issue — aren't sure it's in the best interest of the district to go that route.

Janssen's attorney Meyer said his client is not going to accept a determination of "just cause" without a fight. "This is not going to be something where Dr. Janssen just turns her back and walks away when she feels like she is being unfairly dealt with."

Times staff writer David DeCamp contributed to this report.

Ethics complaint says Pinellas schools chief Janssen violated public records laws 08/20/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 20, 2011 12:25am]
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