ST. PETERSBURG — In a surprise visit last month, Pinellas school superintendent Julie Janssen full-steamed into the culinary center at Dixie Hollins High School.
She asked students what they were learning. She asked the certified chef what he was teaching. She beamed as he explained how he sprinkles math and geography into lessons about omelettes. The district wants to add a business piece to the program, she told him, spinning a vision of graduates not just working in restaurants, but owning them.
Three weeks later, Janssen sat in the library at John Hopkins Middle School, surrounded by upset parents and frazzled teachers. Reports about Hopkins' troubles, including more than 80 student arrests, had been "so blown out of proportion," she said. Many arrests could stem from a single fight, "so it's not like every day it's this picture of what's happening."
The retort, polite but firm, came from a sixth-grade parent, whose daughter brought home stories of bloody faces and ripped clothes: "It's been rough, okay?"
It's as if Pinellas has two superintendents.
One is there most of the time, the ultimate insider who knows all the levers and buttons that can move one of the nation's biggest school districts. That superintendent riffs with confidence about teaching, programs, curriculum, budgets.
The other emerges during crises, when outside forces crash unexpectedly into her zone. That superintendent looks wobbly and unsure.
In the past few months, Janssen has been forced to handle a string of fast-moving flare-ups, and the results have been less than flattering.
When controversy erupted over President Barack Obama's back-to-school speech, Janssen took an extreme position followed by few districts in the country.
When a student was killed by a car near her bus stop, the superintendent fanned the outrage with what appeared to be an insensitive remark.
And when brawls rocked John Hopkins, Janssen never fully stepped up to assure parents, teachers and students that help was coming, now.
Her tone-deaf moments may be rookie flubs, eventually to be forgotten. But for now, they've unnecessarily angered teachers and parents. And there are hints some School Board members are not satisfied, either, mainly with her response to chaotic conditions at Hopkins.
"The superintendent could have gone in, and in one fell swoop . . . handled it in a way that said, 'Yes, we see this problem. This is what we're going to do,' '' said chairwoman Janet Clark.
Instead, Janssen worked mostly behind the scenes.
Her take-charge predecessor, Clayton Wilcox, likely would have been at the school the next day, TV cameras in tow. But Janssen said grandstanding isn't her style. She said she prefers to get her facts straight before going public.
She conceded that can make her look tentative. "People can criticize me for that," she said. "But when I make a decision, I know . . . I have weighed all of it."
Questions about Janssen's leadership come as Pinellas schools face even bigger crises ahead. More budget cuts. Sensitive policy issues. And parents growing frustrated with a district that bills itself as award-winning and progressive.
"The kids I come across, they just don't have the skills to succeed in life," said Kelley Pace, 48, a St. Petersburg resident who gave Janssen low marks in a recent survey and whose daughter teaches in Pinellas.
"Somewhere, something's failing."
• • •
The School Board tapped Janssen 18 months ago after its first choice became superintendent in Miami-Dade County. She seemed the perfect contrast to Wilcox, who served 3 1/2 years and earned some enemies before leaving to work for children's book publisher Scholastic.
Wilcox was the outsider from a Louisiana district, media savvy and hard charging, but prone to clashes with the board.
Janssen, 61, is virtually home-grown, a teacher who rose through the ranks to become a successful principal at Countryside High and St. Petersburg High. She doesn't fight with board members. She bakes them cakes.
Janssen's roots are Lebanese, but she was born in Belize, where Central America meets the Caribbean. Her family moved to St. Petersburg when she was 12. Her father, Gene Mastry, was a wealthy industrialist who sold everything from cigarettes to boats and founded Mastry Engine Center. His sons still run it near Tyrone Square Mall.
Janssen's mother, Celma Mastry, became one of St. Petersburg's most prominent philanthropists. Until her death in 2004, she organized benefits for more than a dozen charities and was active in a long list of civic causes.
Her daughter knows everybody.
During a recent visit to Woodlawn Elementary, Janssen walked in to say hello to a guidance counselor. Turns out, she has known him since he was 4. At Dixie Hollins, she hugged a campus monitor in a golf cart. "Her mom worked for me at St. Pete High," she said.
Becoming superintendent capped 30 years in Pinellas schools, but Janssen didn't get time to celebrate.
From the get-go, Pinellas' 15th superintendent has rushed from one potential calamity to the next: budget cuts of historic proportions; an unprecedented round of school closings; new state and federal mandates that make the Jeb Bush era look timid.
Janssen has earned praise from board members for navigating these challenges — and by many accounts, successfully. In her first evaluation, conducted before recent crises, six of seven members gave her high marks.
"I think she's trying to do some creative things, and it's definitely not easy when she's coming into a situation where there's not a lot of money," board member Mary Brown said in January. "In my mind, I see progress."
In the past two years, no big district in Florida has improved its graduation rate more than Pinellas. Janssen can also claim credit for making supervisors pay closer attention to spending — a directive that led last month to the arrest of two former employees charged with rigging contracts for playground mulch.
But there have been low points, too.
State lawmakers questioned Janssen after the Florida auditor general ripped the district's financial controls. (Janssen has since proposed adding a professional investment position.) St. Petersburg Times reviews found Pinellas' administrative costs outpace peer districts. (Janssen is still looking to trim and expects savings from reshuffling the finance department.) And last summer, the state handed Pinellas its first F grade for a high school (The school, Gibbs High, is now under state oversight.)
Janssen inherited all of these problems. But they highlight how big her task is, and how little room there is for error.
• • •
After publicly describing the Hopkins situation as "overblown," Janssen backpedaled a bit in an interview, saying she and the district should have known about the school's problems. "That's the nagging question," she said. "How come I didn't know?"
But impressions are sinking in.
On the day the story broke, Janssen told board members who were clearly rattled by the news that the district needed to look at the "big picture."
The board's response: Take action. Now.
Two weeks later, when asked how Janssen has performed, board member Linda Lerner chose her words carefully.
"I think what's happening as of today is what I think is appropriate," she said. "I would have liked a little quicker response."
It's not the first time Janssen's decisions have drawn scrutiny.
In September, when a controversy began building over President Obama's back-to-school address, Janssen not only allowed students to opt out of watching but also to stay home and receive an excused absence. Many parents criticized Janssen for going overboard.
Three months later, tragedy struck.
Nora Hernandez-Huapilla, a 17-year-old student at Pinellas Park High, was killed trying to cross 66th Street to reach her bus. Parents were outraged. They had complained about the district's modified bus system, which concentrated thousands of students at stops on busy roads.
At a news conference, Janssen was asked what she would tell people who said this was an accident waiting to happen.
Her response: "You know those are decisions that parents make when they choose to allow their children to go to a school that's not their zoned school."
The comment stunned parents. It also didn't jibe with a side of Janssen the public never sees.
Before board workshops, the superintendent prepares treats like tiramisu and stuffed grape leaves for board members and staff. During school visits, she picks up stray bits of trash. When the principal at Madeira Beach Fundamental School asked the district for landscaping help, Janssen herself showed up and spent three hours pulling weeds and mulching flower beds.
In January, she defended plans for a new journalism/technology position at high-poverty Melrose Elementary with a rare, passionate plea. The school "really, truly has to have a jump start," she told skeptical board members. The students there "have barriers that other students don't have."
This was the same superintendent who botched the bus stop question.
Janssen later said she was trying to explain district policy, not cast blame in the bus stop case. "This is a loss," she said. "This is like one of my own kids."
But the damage was done.
• • •
Janssen's work ethic is legend. She gets up at 4:30 a.m., downs a latte with a double shot of espresso and hits the gym. She routinely works 12- and 13-hour days — and still sends e-mails about district business at 2 a.m.
She is driven by big plans.
The district is moving fast on an overhaul of its dropout prevention programs. It's working with the University of Florida to make its teacher training a national model. Nudged by state and federal currents, the district also will have to redo how teachers are paid and evaluated.
This is on top of normal business for 104,000 students. This is on top of crises.
Despite the criticism, Janssen continues to enjoy broad support. She is backed by the business honchos at the Pinellas Education Foundation. She has won steadfast allies among influential leaders in the black community.
Last summer, she helped engineer a new agreement with the plaintiffs in Pinellas' still-running desegregation lawsuit that promised more attention and resources for black students. Finally, said community activist Watson Haynes, the district was doing the right thing.
A similar plan went nowhere under Wilcox. But Janssen's detailed knowledge of the lawsuit and find-a-way attitude made it happen, he said.
"She turned out to be more than what we expected," Haynes said. If Janssen had been superintendent years ago, "I don't believe we'd have one-half of the problems we have now in terms of student achievement."
Time will tell whether the agreement is more than words on paper. But it showed Janssen was willing to take risks.
She's no pushover, either.
Janssen stuck by an unpopular decision to impose a seventh period on middle school teachers, even though it infuriated the teachers union and snubbed an arbitrator's order. A few months later, she riled the union again, this time declaring an impasse when salary talks bogged down.
By almost all accounts, though, Janssen prefers to be inclusive — a leadership style that even the union praises. In the past month, Janssen invited more than 400 people to workshops to solicit visions for the district's future, including parents, teachers and members of community groups.
"If you're going to sustain change . . . you have to bring the people to the table that you're asking to be the warriors with you," Janssen said. "Nobody's going to follow blindly."
• • •
What parents think of Janssen is influenced by what they think is happening to their kids, in their schools.
For years, Pinellas was roiled by a school choice plan that parents found confusing. Now, with the return to neighborhood schools, some schools are reeling from greater concentrations of struggling students, while others are breathing easier.
All that is projected onto Janssen.
Under Wilcox, John Beggins couldn't get his daughter into the public schools she wanted, so he sent her to private school. But he kept trying, and last year his daughter got into St. Petersburg High. Janssen didn't do anything to make that happen, but he's giving her credit.
"Wilcox thought he was appointed by the . . . pope," said Beggins, 49, a retired New York City cop. "This lady, she's here to work."
Things did not improve at David Johnson's school. Three of his children graduated from Gibbs High, the youngest last year. He said if he had more kids, he wouldn't send them there.
Ending busing "all in one blow has turned out to be a disaster," said Johnson, a doctor who chaired Gibbs' school advisory council. Discipline problems "just got worse and worse."
Like many parents, Johnson didn't know enough about Janssen to have an opinion. But he doesn't have a good opinion of district administration, which he said didn't act fast enough to address festering problems at Gibbs.
Perceptions like that have been amplified by the response at Hopkins. Some teachers are upset, too.
Gary Kolosey is not one of them. A science teacher at St. Petersburg High, he has known Janssen for years and continues to be a strong supporter.
Janssen is doing well given the circumstances, he said. He doesn't suggest she did anything wrong at Hopkins. But he said she shouldn't shrug off how some teachers' perceptions of the administration's response can undermine her credibility.
"You can't govern without the consent of the governed," he said.
• • •
Janssen said she is learning that she needs to be more public when emergencies arise, even if it goes against her instincts. But any response has "got to have honesty in it," she said. "If you aren't finished with your thinking, don't go out there saying half stuff.
"Or else you get yourself in trouble that way, too."
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.
In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Pinellas school superintendent Julie Janssen talked about everything from her response to the John Hopkins Middle School troubles to her biggest ups and downs during 18 months on the job. You can read the full interview at the Times' Gradebook education blog, at blogs.tampabay.com/schools. Here are some excerpts:
On why she didn't immediately meet with Hopkins teachers after the story broke:
If I go down and overstep Claud (Effiom, the principal), I believe I have diminished his power. That's his school, and I have to help him keep his credibility. And if I go in there as if I'm going to fix it because he screwed it up, I've destroyed him and his leadership ability. . . . I remember being a principal. If my superintendent had come in and talked to my teachers, they'd have said, yeah, well, she's lost it. She doesn't have any credibility.
On her biggest accomplishment to date as superintendent:
I think the greatest piece that I'm so proud of right now is the redesign of professional development (for teachers). If you look throughout this country, you are not going to find anything like what we're doing. . . . Our teachers have said, you make us go to these nonsense, insignificant trainings and it's all about seat time when, in reality, we didn't need to be asking them to do that. So wiping the slate clean and starting over and saying let's pick what's really relevant to help them grow. . . . We're going to build the intellectual capacity of our teachers and our support staff.
On the hardest thing about the job:
People are so ingrained in the way it's always been done. It's been very tough to get in to make inroads in certain departments. . . . And the comments I get: I've been here through three superintendents, and this is the way we've always done it. And you go, well, have you looked at doing it this way? Yeah. And so, that's been very tough. Much harder than I thought. In my work ethic, if I'm employed by a certain person, they come to me and say, "here's the way we're going do this from now on," you just do it. That's not exactly the way things happen here.
On why she doesn't "make heads roll" and fire people:
You have to respect human beings. And the time to do whatever — you can call it whatever, head-rolling — is from the week after Easter. That's when we start doing our evaluations. And that's when I bring people to the table. And I have to work with people with dignity, even if they're not going to be brought back. I'm going to do it the right way because that's the way I would want people to remember me, to treat them with dignity. I'm not that hell-fire person. I can't do that.