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Janssen and Pinellas school board decide it's time to talk

Pinellas County School Board members on June 21 will discuss the performance of superintendent Julie Janssen.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Pinellas County School Board members on June 21 will discuss the performance of superintendent Julie Janssen.

They may not agree on everything these days.

But Pinellas County superintendent Julie Janssen and the seven-member School Board charged with hiring and firing her agree on this:

It's time to talk.

The two sides officially decided Tuesday to clear the decks June 21 to discuss Janssen's performance in detail during a public workshop.

Board member Lew Williams called for a candid conversation, saying they all need "to stop playing patty-cake."

"I think we've danced around issues," he said. "If we want the superintendent to improve, we need to be very honest."

Janssen, whose leadership has come under increased scrutiny in recent months, said she welcomes the discussion and requested that a "facilitator" be present to "guide" the conversation and "to identify clearly the expectations, roles and responsibilities of myself and the board as a body and as individuals."

Board member Robin Wikle, who first asked for an immediate review of Janssen's performance during May's board meeting, clarified that it isn't the board that she's worried about.

"I don't have any concerns about the roles and responsibilities of the board," she said. "I feel really good about the direction we're going."

Appointed superintendent in 2008, Janssen holds a $200,000 contract to oversee the 103,000-student district through 2013.

A former math teacher who enjoyed a great reputation as she rose through the ranks to become a principal, then a district administrator, her superintendency has been tumultuous almost from the start.

Two months after she took the reins, a 17-year-old student was killed as she crossed several lanes of traffic to try to catch her school bus. Janssen came under fire after she suggested parents share some of the blame for allowing their children to attend school outside their designated school zones.

Three years later, the concerns seem to have reached a boiling point.

Critics have long complained that Janssen has demonstrated poor communication skills, but two recent developments seem to have heightened the board's concerns about her leadership: her abrupt decision to pull the plug on a new program at Melrose Elementary and her handling of an investigation into the actions of two district administrators accused of using district resources and time for personal gain.

Yet, Janssen has her supporters.

On Tuesday, retiring regional superintendent Alec Liam called her "an inspiration."

"She has always accepted responsibility for what goes well, but also what doesn't," he said.

And Cheryl Guldenschuh, an information specialist in the district's communication office, lauded the leadership team for bringing improvements to the district.

Still, the board clearly feels there is plenty to discuss.

"Obviously, if this is bothering this many board members, something needs to happen," said Peggy O'Shea, one of Janssen's leading defenders on the board.

Despite the planned discussion, board members decided Tuesday that they will continue to proceed with Janssen's formal written evaluation in time to meet the Sept. 1 deadline agreed upon in Janssen's contract.

School Board member Terry Krassner unsuccessfully asked the board to complete it in July as district policy stated it should. Instead, the board voted to amend the policy to make it align with Janssen's contract.

For now, board chairwoman Carol Cook said she will hunt feverishly to find someone to help "facilitate" the discussion for free on Tuesday.

Ray Tampa, past president of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP, urged board members on Tuesday to ask themselves several questions as they consider Janssen's leadership.

Among them: Is the district in better shape than it was three years ago? Is student achievement better? Has employee morale improved? Does the district enjoy a more positive relationship with the press? Are there stronger relationships with community stakeholders?

"No matter what you hear or no matter what anybody says," Tampa said, "the ultimate decision is yours as to what her fate is."

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

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that Ray Tampa is past president of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP. An earlier version incorrectly stated his status with the organization.

Janssen and Pinellas school board decide it's time to talk 06/14/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 10:01am]
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