Pinellas district recommends troubled school administrator be fired for conflict of interest

Pinellas Superintendent Julie Janssen says embattled administrator Janet Hernandez should be fired after an investigation concluded she failed to disclose a key fact: that her daughter was the longtime girlfriend of a teacher she recommended for a district job.

Hernandez violated several School Board policies, including those barring conflicts of interest, using a position for personal gain and conduct unbecoming a board employee, said Janssen in her recommendation to the board.

A nine-page report, released Monday, suggests Hernandez was not truthful when investigators asked about the relationship between her 31-year-old daughter and Michael Hernandez, who coincidentally shares the same last name. The couple bought a home together in May 2009, got engaged in December 2009 and recently married.

Janet Hernandez told investigators she knew Michael Hernandez and her daughter were friends at the time he was seeking a job in Pinellas. But she said she was unaware the two were living together and unsure when they got engaged.

"Highly implausible," wrote Jim Lott, who heads the office that investigates employee conduct. He interviewed 14 current and former district employees.

Janet Hernandez's response: "It's nonsense," she said by phone Tuesday, speaking publicly for the first time.

She referred to a four-page rebuttal for details. "No solid time line has been established with regard to the dates on which I knew about various aspects of my daughter's personal relationship with Mr. Hernandez," she wrote. "One can judge my comments about my lack of knowledge as 'implausible' but my children are adults and share with me as their hearts lead them to share."

As an example, Hernandez noted her son eloped and did not tell the family for six months.

Pinellas officials ordered the investigation in September after a St. Petersburg Times story noted the relationship between Janet Hernandez and Michael Hernandez. She recommended him for a special teaching job at Gibbs High School that was tied to her department.

It was the latest twist in a months-long saga.

Armed with a glowing recommendation from Janssen — whom she knew from graduate school — Janet Hernandez left a teaching job in Manatee County in 2009 to head the Pinellas office of professional development. A string of controversies followed. Employees accused her of creating a "culture of fear." The district hired an investigator to see if she helped her then partner, now husband, fudge a district job application. The School Board shot down Janssen's bid to transfer her to another department.

"It's unfortunate some of the things she did," said Janssen, whose standing with the School Board took a hit over her initial support for Hernandez. "I don't think she thought them through."

Michael Hernandez was a highly regarded science teacher in Hillsborough last year when he wrote to Janet Hernandez, seeking an administrative job in Pinellas. As head of professional development, she oversaw the process Pinellas uses to determine who can be an assistant principal.

The Gibbs job came into view. Principal Kevin Gordon said the school desperately needed someone to mentor new teachers.

District officials told investigators the job was not created for Michael Hernandez and Janet Hernandez was not his supervisor. But records show she assisted him by writing him a reference letter and then contacting another one of his references on the district's behalf. She also made the final recommendation for the job. He was hired in February.

Janet Hernandez told investigators she made people aware that Michael Hernandez was a friend of her daughter's. But many of those interviewed said they were not aware her daughter was dating him.

Carrie Rivera, a senior human resources specialist, said Janet Hernandez told her the couple was engaged. But when Rivera, who worked for Hernandez, suggested the relationship looked too cozy, she said Hernandez told her not to repeat the story. And she didn't — until investigators asked.

Janet Hernandez said Tuesday that she told Rivera the "cozy" remark shouldn't be repeated because it was unprofessional and inappropriate. She said she did not try to hide the engagement once she knew about it.

"Even Mr. Hernandez stated in his interview that he did not know when my daughter shared the engagement news with me," she wrote in her rebuttal.

Records also show Janet Hernandez signed off on three part-time jobs for Michael Hernandez. "(Michael Hernandez) may very well have been the best candidate for these positions," the report said, "but once again the perception is that he was given preferential treatment because of his relationship to (Janet Hernandez)."

She treated Michael Hernandez like any other employee when it came to part-time work, Janet Hernandez said.

This past summer, Michael Hernandez was hired as an assistant principal at Northeast High. District officials told investigators there is no reason to believe he was treated differently. He got the job "because he was deemed the best candidate by the interview committee," the report said.

Michael Hernandez did not return calls Tuesday to his school voice mail.

Janet Hernandez ended up as a program specialist in special education. The district received a resignation letter from her Friday, but it remains to be seen whether Janssen will recommend that the School Board accept it. Hernandez was making $76,549 a year.

The board will consider the firing recommendation Tuesday. Janet Hernandez' rebuttal argues for a lesser sanction given the district follows a policy of "progressive discipline" and the charges would be a first offense.

Hernandez can elect to go to an administrative hearing, but she said Tuesday that she has not decided the next step.

"I need to pray about it … and weigh my options," she said.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds and staff writer Dominick Tao contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Pinellas district recommends troubled school administrator be fired for conflict of interest 11/30/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 30, 2010 11:11pm]

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