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Former Pinellas schools chief wants school district to pay her $621,000

Fired Pinellas County superintendent Julie Janssen believes the school district should pay her $621,536 in salary and benefits to part ways.

The School Board disagrees.

Board members concede that Janssen is due her annual salary, $203,000, since her contract called for them to pay her year's pay plus benefits when they terminated her "without cause." And they aren't challenging her right to $199,998 in accrued vacation and unused sick days.

But a majority of the seven-member board on Tuesday said it's not going to budge on at least $138,000 of the $218,538 in benefits she says she is due. Janssen's attorney says that amount represents how much the former schools chief would have earned during one more year of employment had the district continued to pay into her state retirement fund.

Board attorney Jim Robinson called the claim "ludicrous, baseless" and "off the charts" — so much so that he wasn't sure it even warrants a formal response.

"There's nowhere in here about futuristic contributions or increased value to her retirement fund based upon what would have happened if she'd stayed in longer and had more creditable service and higher income average," Robinson told board members, a copy of her contract before him. "That's fanciful. And so you don't owe it."

Board members also indicated they don't want to pay Janssen another year of her $3,000 communications allowance and a $10,800 automobile allowance, since she is no longer traveling or making phone calls as a part of her job.

"No, no and no," board member Robin Wikle said when called upon to share her position during a board workshop.

Janssen, 62, was terminated from her position effective Friday.

Attorney Ron Meyer on Tuesday stood by Janssen's claims, pointing to contract language that promises a year's salary and benefits. But Meyer also said he is open to discussions with Robinson.

"I don't view us in an adversarial relationship here," Meyer said. "This is an effort to tie together what I believe are the open remaining issues. They always want to make this sound villainous."

On top of any compensation she receives from the district, Janssen also will receive roughly $8,800 a month in state retirement benefits, according to the state.

That's because retirement from the Florida Retirement System is separate from her termination from the district, Robinson said.

Janssen, who had more than 30 years in the district, has submitted her retirement paperwork, according to Ted Pafundi, the district's director of risk management and insurance.

The only board member who spoke in defense of Janssen's claim Tuesday was Peggy O'Shea, who questioned whether it might have been cheaper to keep her on staff for a year under terms similar to paid leave: "It sounds like it would cost us less than if she were to prevail in this."

"We thought about that," Robinson answered. "We felt that to put somebody in an empty position solely for the purpose of beefing up their retirement benefits is something that is ethically questionable."

The School Board doesn't dispute another big portion of Janssen's severance package — the $199,998 in gross pay for unused vacation and sick leave. Florida law allows school boards to establish policies to pay employees for accumulated leave. According to the Pinellas school district's calculations, Janssen racked up 168 sick leave days and 60 vacation days.

State lawmakers have long wrestled with such generous leave policies for state and school district employees, which are at odds with what many workers get in the private sector.

Throughout the 1990s, then-Senate President John McKay, R-Bradenton, led a one-man crusade against those policies, particularly when they benefited high-ranking administrators. "My constituents were aghast that the practice ever went on," McKay said Tuesday. "That was taking money out of the classroom."

Changes that took effect in 2004 will make the policies less lucrative.

Meyer said that if there is criticism about the former superintendent cashing in on unused leave, it should be directed at the School Board, which set the policy.

The questions surrounding Janssen's contract haunted a meeting that otherwise sought to mark a new day. Interim superintendent John A. Stewart started his first workshop discussion on district goals by asking senior staff members to introduce themselves.

He listened from a spot at the table opposite from where Janssen usually sat, with a view of almost everyone in the room. Then he asked everyone to put aside any personal agendas that developed prior to Sept. 6, his first day on the job. "Leave those at home," he said. "Today and henceforward (the) only agenda we have out of this office is to serve students and schools and to make sure student achievement is elevated to the highest level that it can get."

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8707. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Former Pinellas schools chief wants school district to pay her $621,000 09/06/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 7, 2011 1:10am]
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