Is communication lacking in Pinellas County school district?

The e-mail arrived in school board members' mailboxes at 9 p.m., a last-minute addition to an already hefty 933-page agenda.

Pinellas County school superintendent Julie Janssen wanted to amend her sweeping proposal to reassign principals.

At the meeting the next day board members spoke up.

"Agenda items are supposed to be given to the board and the public six days before the meeting," said Linda Lerner. "The public had no chance to know about these recommendations because at 9 o'clock at night, there was no way to even send it to the newspaper."

Over the course of the next five hours, board members and citizens echoed a similar refrain: communication is lacking and people feel left out.

Involved parents didn't know about the principal changes until they read it in the newspaper. Board members didn't understand why all the changes were being made.

Parents also felt blind-sided by an earlier decision to change school start times. And board members said they felt rushed into approving them.

"I don't know if it's having to react to all these emergencies coming up or (if it's) the way of work in the superintendent's office," board chairwoman Janet Clark said Thursday. "We can't work like this."

In an e-mail Thursday, Janssen said she sends board members weekly updates, speaks with them each weekly, and asks them to submit questions before meetings and workshops.

"Communication is a challenge for any large organization," she said. "Unfortunately, we cannot anticipate every eventuality. Unexpected situations occur, especially in times of budget shortfalls, and we must remain flexible."

Bowed by pressure to cut $26 million from the 2010-11 budget due to legislative cuts, Janssen and her staff are under the gun to change almost every area of the district — from staffing to busing to curriculum.

On top of that, four high schools also are headed for state oversight. The last-minute changes Janssen recommended to the board included moving principals from two of those schools after the most recent Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores showed minimal improvement.

But even involved parents said they are frustrated by the lack of information.

Kym Ottaviani, father of twins attending Bay Point Elementary in St. Petersburg, and his wife thought they were plugged into their school. The couple are active in the PTA and advisory committee, logging 290 volunteer hours last year.

But they were stunned to read in the St. Petersburg Times that their daughters' principal was leaving the A-rated campus and would be replaced with another from a C-rated school.

The Ottavianis said they called Janssen's office six times to express concern. No one returned their calls, they said.

So on Tuesday, Kym Ottaviani aired his chief complaint before the board: "Where was our stake in this decision process?" he asked. "We had none."

Janssen said Thursday staffing decisions are hers to make.

"Until personnel recommendations are officially approved by the school board, it would be premature to communicate those changes with the community," she wrote in her e-mail.

Board member Carol Cook said the administration has to do better — and so does the board, which should insist that issues be presented with enough time for public input.

"Sometimes you just need to say let's stop, let's take a breath, let's get some different input and let's make a plan," Cook said.

The school bell times should have been decided before school was out, said board member Robin Wikle. The board had been asking for plans for months, part of an effort to cut costs.

They got them on the last day of school and voted a week later. "That was unacceptable to come in after school ended," Wikle said.

Parents felt slighted.

"The school board and administration doesn't seem to want to engage the parents," said Chris Tauchnitz, whose son attends Oldsmar Elementary.

After parents complained, the board was told the district could keep the same bell times and still cut $900,000 — a figure board members said was new.

They reversed their vote on Tuesday.

Janssen said she would have preferred to finalize bell times earlier but finding ways to save money took longer.

Board member Peggy O'Shea said district leaders have to make unpopular choices. "Each time you touch something, it's upsetting to people," she said.

As a business owner, Ottaviani can relate.

"Dr. Janssen, I realize, has a big plate," he said. "And I realize that plate has a whole lot less beef on it now than it used to. She's scraping every way she can to put a budget together."

But a little notification helps people feel included, he said.

Lerner plans to bring up the topic at a Tuesday workshop. And while board members vary on how much more communication is needed, most agree something must change.

"I don't know how we're going to improve it," Cook said, "other than, let's just improve it."

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

Is communication lacking in Pinellas County school district? 07/02/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 2, 2010 12:51am]

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