The Pinellas School Board on Tuesday made veteran educator Julie Janssen its next superintendent in a surprising vote that closed out a four-month national search with three weeks of intense scrutiny and a series of dramatic twists.
The 7-0 decision, reached after a tense special meeting, prompted tears and hugs at district headquarters. District employees expressed relief that the board chose one of their own after an outside candidate from Miami declined the job last week.
A misty-eyed Janssen held her hand to her mouth as about 25 supporters applauded shortly after the vote.
"Unbelievable," she said.
With the vote, Janssen and the board will begin negotiating a multiyear contract that will make her the 15th superintendent in the 96-year history of Pinellas schools and the first woman to hold the job.
"It's really good to have this behind us because we have lots of things to do," said Janssen, 59, who referred to her roots as part of the Mastry family in St. Petersburg, well known for its business and philanthropic interests.
The board's vote sent a message that "if you put your mind to something you can do it" regardless of gender, Janssen said. "In a Lebanese family of four boys and four girls, it's very difficult for a girl to really work her way up. So I've been the salmon swimming upstream all along. This is not new for me."
She also referred to the work ahead.
Janssen said she already has expanded staff discussions about a proposal to give principals, teachers and parents more authority, a concept known as "site-based management."
She said she will begin to focus intently on the district's budget crisis and on a graduation rate that stands at 67 percent.
In addition, she said she would soon propose a change in school start times, which have been criticized as too early for high schools (7:05 a.m.) and too late (9:38 a.m.) for middle schools.
"Behind the scenes we're doing lots of things but we haven't made them public," Janssen said, citing the temporary nature of an "interim superintendent," the post she has held since June.
Last week, when the board made Miami-Dade associate superintendent Alberto Carvalho its first choice to lead Pinellas, some questioned the wisdom of tapping someone from a school system known for its problems.
In truth, many of Miami-Dade's key indicators are better than Pinellas'. Overall on this year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, white and black students in Miami-Dade performed better in reading and math than Pinellas students. Pinellas had a significantly worse achievement gap, especially when it comes to the graduation rate.
And when compared against the six other large districts in Florida, Pinellas' achievement gap in math, reading and the graduation rate ranked last or next to last.
"We're not proud of our results with our graduates," Janssen said in an interview. "We're losing too many of our kids. … They're telling us what we're offering them isn't something that they're interested in."
She added: "We've got lots and lots of issues."
Tuesday's unanimous vote did not come easy.
When the board voted 4-3 to hire Carvalho last Wednesday, a disappointed Janssen vowed to work with the new superintendent. Two days later, when he declined the offer, the same majority appeared like it might hire Nicholas Gledich, a top official for Orange County schools.
The majority consisted of Nancy Bostock, Janet Clark, Carol Cook and Jane Gallucci, all of whom questioned whether Janssen had enough experience to be superintendent. There also was concern that, with so much history in the district, Janssen would be hard-pressed to turn up the heat on longtime colleagues.
The turning point came late Monday when Clark, who was struggling with her decision, met with Janssen. After an hour-long discussion, Clark came away feeling comfortable with Janssen, provided she took several steps.
Clark wanted Janssen to be more specific about her plans and to put them in writing. She wanted a timetable, and she wanted Janssen to join with the board in leadership training.
"When I woke up this morning," Clark said later, "I knew what I was going to do."
When Clark's intentions became clear Tuesday, Cook looked for a way to make the vote come out 7-0. She made a motion to hire Gledich and voted in favor of it with Bostock and Gallucci. The motion failed.
Then Gallucci made a motion to hire Janssen, whose supporters in the audience looked at one another in disbelief.
The decision made for a feel-good day at district headquarters, though some board members were angered when business leaders, teachers union officials and colleagues made an aggressive push for Janssen.
Union officials, for example, said the board embarrassed Pinellas by choosing Carvalho and threatened political payback.
After Clark's vote last week, the union pulled her name from a list of candidates it intended to support in the Nov. 4 election.
"I'm tired of the bullying," Clark said, echoing other board members. She said of the union endorsement: "As far as I'm concerned they can keep their filthy lucre. I'm not bought. I make my decisions and I listen to input."
Janssen, meanwhile, had overcome the experience issue. "It takes someone to put faith in you and give you a chance to get that experience," she said.
She was a principal at St. Petersburg High as recently as 2006. But former superintendent Clayton Wilcox said Tuesday she had risen to the fore as "one of the principals to watch." He made her deputy superintendent that year.
Moments after Tuesday's vote, several district officials sent text messages to Wilcox, who read them after he stepped off a plane in New York, where he works for Scholastic Corp. He sent a quick congratulatory note to Janssen.
"Julie has demonstrated that she is a leader and she has done what it takes to prepare one's self for the job," Wilcox said in an interview.
He added: "She'll bring some style and grace to some things that I didn't."
Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at email@example.com and (727) 893-8923.