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Julie Janssen offers to resign as Pinellas school superintendent

Amid mounting criticism over her job performance, Pinellas County school superintendent Julie Janssen on Thursday offered to resign — with some conditions.

The 62-year-old embattled school chief wants a year's salary — $200,000 — and benefits in exchange for resigning Sept. 2, two years before her contract expires, according to a letter from her attorney e-mailed to the School Board attorney.

If Janssen should land another job within the year, she wants to keep all of her severance. Now her contract calls for that to be reduced if she is hired elsewhere.

That immediately didn't sit well with several board members, even those like Linda Lerner and Terry Krassner who otherwise wanted to reserve comment until Tuesday's board meeting to decide Janssen's future.

"I absolutely will not go above what is in the contract," said Lerner.

"This seems outrageous," said Krassner.

"I don't know that she should expect the full payout," said board member Janet Clark, who acknowledged the deliberation was going to require some give and take.

Janssen, who rose from math teacher to principal at Countryside and St. Petersburg high schools before accepting the top job overseeing the 101,000-student district, also appears poised for a fight.

"Just cause that would warrant her termination from employment does not exist," Janssen's attorney, Ron Meyer, wrote to board counsel Jim Robinson.

Janssen, whose contract expires in September 2013, is offering the settlement upon request of others and with the hope of avoiding "extended legal proceedings," Meyer wrote.

Neither Janssen nor Meyer returned phone messages Thursday seeking comment.

Both Clark and Krassner said that despite Meyer's statement about there not being "just cause," they feel the board does have legal justification for terminating its contract with Janssen.

"I don't think we would have gone this route if we hadn't had just cause," Krassner said.

Board members Robin Wikle and Carol Cook said they needed more time to review the offer. Board members Peggy O'Shea and Lew Williams couldn't be reached.

O'Shea said earlier that she believes a vote on Janssen's tenure is premature considering her performance evaluation isn't completed.

Board members have been submitting their written evaluations of Janssen all week, but only one of the five turned in as of Thursday indicated clear confidence in Janssen.

That support came from O'Shea, who credited Janssen with recommending innovative ways to improve student achievement and providing strong direction in mediation with the plaintiffs in two civil rights cases.

"Dr. Janssen has strong relationships with the community including business leaders, higher education, and state committees, (and) employee work groups," O'Shea wrote.

In June, however, the rest of the seven-member board laid out numerous issues with Janssen's performance — from communication issues to governance problems to personnel matters — and gave her two months to improve.

Originally, they planned to meet Tuesday in a followup workshop to discuss her progress. But four of seven board members — Lerner, Krassner, Wikle and Williams — asked to scrap the workshop in exchange for a special meeting, which would allow them to vote on Janssen's job.

"I think we're past the point of no return," Clark said Thursday.

Should the board reject Janssen's resignation offer, it still has the option of terminating under two different scenarios.

According to a memo Robinson sent the board earlier this week, it can terminate "with cause" which would require no payout, but could lead to a legal battle. Or, it could fire her "without cause" which, by the terms of the contract, requires the additional year salary, minus any additional pay she might get if she gets a new job.

All of this deliberation might have been unnecessary had the board not voted 7-0 in April 2010 to extend Janssen's contract beyond its original June 2011 expiration date.

Both Lerner and Clark said they probably won't do that again in future superintendents' contracts.

Lerner said many of the issues with Janssen's leadership arose after that vote.

"I was looking for improvement and I thought that was going to happen," she said. "I thought it was a good decision at the time."

Whether Janssen resigns or is fired, School Board members will face another challenge: finding a replacement.

Upon Janssen's departure, deputy superintendent Jim Madden, becomes acting superintendent unless the board decides otherwise or until it names an interim superintendent, according to Robinson.

Clark said the whole experience with Janssen has turned her off to hiring from within — even for an interim chief. "I think I would be more comfortable with someone with some experience," she said.

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

Julie Janssen offers to resign as Pinellas school superintendent 08/18/11 [Last modified: Friday, August 19, 2011 9:55am]
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