Julie Janssen is at a crossroads.
After leading Florida's seventh-largest school district for three years, the Pinellas County school superintendent will walk into a public meeting today and hear her bosses air concerns about her leadership.
The board members who called for the summit have promised nothing but straight talk. They cite mounting board and public concerns regarding Janssen's decisionmaking and communication skills — uncomfortable topics for a board that frequently errs on the side of public politeness when faced with divisive matters.
But even if the honesty unapologetically flows as promised, here's the big question: What happens next?
"I think it can either be the beginning of the end or it can be the beginning of a new beginning," said member Janet Clark.
Several members say they want assurances today from Janssen that change is ahead. Member Robin Wikle wants the board to give clear direction, then develop short-term goals for improvement — goals that are, she said, "simple, measurable, attainable, relevant, timely."
"Probably the most important thing is the recognition by Dr. Janssen that there are things she needs to do differently," said member Linda Lerner.
Janssen's response will determine the next step, board members said. Her contract is good through Sept. 30, 2013, but the board has the right to terminate it at any time, with or without cause. Depending on the circumstances, the board could be required to pay her a year's salary and benefits.
"I would much rather have someone stay in the district than I would have to go through that search for a new superintendent," Clark said. "But I think we've gotten to the point where we have to do one thing or the other."
Janssen told the Times she hopes to leave the meeting with an "understanding."
"I take direction very well," she said, but said she needs clarification about how the board's expectations of her compare with what she feels her role is.
Since assuming her now $200,000 post as Pinellas County schools chief, Janssen has defended herself against her detractors, blaming the fast-paced cycle of Web-based news reporting for undermining her efforts to get the word out about district matters before they become fodder for gossip and anonymous blog comments.
"It's difficult to defend … when things are being said that are truly untrue and you don't get an opportunity to give facts without sounding defensive," she said. "And I'm not talking about the board; I'm talking about the public."
The superintendent's critics say the problem isn't that the she makes mistakes. It's that the same ones keep happening: Tone-deaf responses in tough situations. Personnel decisions that raise eyebrows. Communication breakdowns that upset parents and teachers.
For example, last year Janssen quietly scrapped the annual "climate survey," which gauges what thousands of district employees think of their principals, the superintendent and the School Board.
Surprised, board members objected and the survey was done after all. This year, a repeat performance: Janssen scrapped the survey. The board objected. The survey was sent out again.
Board members also have found themselves fielding repeated complaints from parents saying their schools have been buffeted by change after change — none of it communicated before it happens.
Mike Doyle said he was incensed by what he called a surprise attack on the International Baccalaureate program at Palm Harbor University High, which in the fall Janssen initially recommended be moved to Countryside High. His three kids graduated from the school.
But he said the bigger problem is that other district initiatives have also gone down because of poor planning and haphazard communication. He blamed Janssen.
"It's a failed experiment," Doyle said of Janssen's tenure. "It's time to move on."
Other upset parents point to the district in general, not to Janssen or the board specifically.
Brian Melton said the district has put his family through the wringer three times in the past year. His daughter was a fifth-grader at Jamerson Elementary last year and is headed to Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School this fall.
First, there was the proposed bell time change for elementary and middle schools. Then there was the board's call to end Jamerson's status as an unofficial feeder into Thurgood. (Janssen told board members the district made that promise to parents several years ago; they later backed off.) Most recently, Janssen recommended a change in start time for Thurgood as a budget-cutting move.
In each case, the idea came out of the blue.
"I would like the parents to be heard … whether (changes) go in their favor or not. That's not being done right now," Melton said. "Everybody's frustrated that nobody can make a decision and stick with it."
In the wake of parent complaints, the board and Janssen agreed to a step-by-step guide for making better decisions. In February, they went so far as to sign a "leadership compact" where they pledged to stop surprising each other.
A month later, Janssen surprised the board with a plan to reopen two shuttered schools as fundamental programs.
Last month, another head-turner: The wheels were in motion to transform Melrose Elementary into a "lab school" with the University of Florida without a board vote.
"It has to end," board member Lew Williams said this week.
He declined to be specific about his concerns, saying he wanted to tell the superintendent directly at the workshop. But he said the board and superintendent are at a "significant point." Issues of teaching and learning need to be on the front burner, he said.
No one is sure exactly how today's meeting will unfold.
Board member Peggy O'Shea, one of Janssen's staunchest supporters, initially opposed a public discussion of the superintendent's performance. But now she hopes it will help propel things forward.
"We need to move on," O'Shea said. "We have 103,000 kids we need to take care of."
In a recent video interview posted on the school district's website, Janssen told a Bay News 9 anchor she is perplexed by the tension between her and the board and would have hoped many board members could have ironed out their concerns with her in their private, one-on-one meetings with her.
But she conceded "it's time" to have a discussion.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873 or email@example.com.