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Pinellas School Board gives Janssen two months to improve

Pinellas County school superintendent Julie Janssen has two months to show her bosses she can fix what they see as major flaws, the School Board decided Thursday.

And if she doesn't?

Then, School Board member Robin Wikle told her, "I'm prepared to … ask for a resignation."

Wikle's polite-but-firm ultimatum came during a wide-ranging, 4 1/2-hour discussion about Janssen's performance as head of the 103,000-student district. None of the other six board members went as far, but several made it clear the superintendent will be under even more scrutiny in the weeks ahead.

"Time will tell," said board member Janet Clark. "Two months is a long enough time (to see) if my gut is telling me things are improving."

Janssen, quiet through most of the meeting, took a lot of notes but didn't offer specific remedies. She kept opening remarks brief, saying she was there to listen. And at the end, she said the board would see the change it wants.

"These things are fixable," she told reporters after the meeting. "They're going to see that we in earnest are going to address them."

The highly unusual workshop came after months of mounting frustration with Janssen, who the board hired in late 2008. Board members, teachers and parents have complained repeatedly about Janssen's communication and decision-making skills.

With the help of two special facilitators — Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association and Sen. Bill Montford, executive director of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents — the board on Thursday fleshed out those concerns with a long list of much-publicized examples. They also added others.

Finish the district's strategic plan, they said. Do a better job working with the media. Be proactive rather than reactive. Manage your time better. Work smarter, not harder. Take responsibility when things go wrong.

"I guess I don't hear enough, 'I made a mistake,' " Clark said.

Don't confuse constructive criticism for lack of loyalty, said board member Linda Lerner. She referenced "fear in the system."

"It's there," she said. "I want to know that when people are asking tough questions, it's actually encouraged … instead of, 'Why is he asking that?' "

As much as any other issue, board members cited what they see as a lack of follow-through when they ask Janssen for basic information.

Wikle said it took months for the district to respond to her request for a list of administrative positions that have been cut in recent years, and the total savings to the district. Wikle said she wanted it to combat the perception that Pinellas is top heavy.

Member Lew Williams said he's been asking, since he took office in November, for a concise, one-page list of strategies that the district is employing to help struggling students. Janssen assured him it had such efforts in place.

But "I haven't gotten that one-pager yet," he said.

Janssen, who makes $200,000 a year, has never been on shakier ground. Five members — Wikle, Clark, Lerner, Williams and Terry Krassner — raised issue after issue Thursday. Board chairwoman Carol Cook cited only a few concerns, while member Peggy O'Shea constantly rose to Janssen's defense.

"No matter which way you go, you're going to alienate somebody," O'Shea said at one point, countering another member's reference to upset parents. "There's times when you can't please everybody."

Janssen responded only occasionally, and usually briefly and deferentially. But her reaction was more forceful when Lerner suggested she blamed board attorney Jim Robinson for a copyright issue that eventually led to an investigation of regional superintendent Carol Thomas.

"Dr. Thomas lied to both of us," she said, referring to her and Robinson. "I've never blamed anyone for that."

Janssen also offered a passionate response after Lerner suggested she visited schools too often — instead of delegating some visits to staff — and board member Terry Krassner asked her what her priorities were.

"My focus has always been and will continue to be schools and what happens in each classroom," she said. "I do go to schools frequently. I believe that's what a superintendent should do."

The board set a date of Aug. 23 to revisit the directives they've given Janssen in order to assess her improvement.

"I will make every effort to get it right and get it to your satisfaction," Janssen told the board.

Wikle credited her with being a strong woman with a kind heart. She told her she would not be a "gotcha board member." But she also said she would not shirk her oversight duties.

"I want more than anything for this district to be No. 1 in the state of Florida, in the country, and I want you to be the No. 1 superintendent," Wikle told Janssen. "But it's about accountability as a leader."

Reach Rebecca Catalanello at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8707. Reach Ron Matus at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Pinellas School Board gives Janssen two months to improve 06/23/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 24, 2011 12:10am]
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