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Pinellas school board rejects request to move official to key post

An embattled Pinellas school district administrator accused of creating a "culture of fear" in her department will not be moving to another key job after all.

By a 5-2 vote, the Pinellas County School Board voted Tuesday night to reject a recommendation from superintendent Julie Janssen to make Janet Hernandez the new director of dropout prevention after a rocky year as the director of professional development.

Janssen said despite employee complaints, she wanted to give Hernandez a second chance in a new setting, with frequent monitoring under a "success plan." But a majority of board members said the problems in professional development — where employees accused Hernandez of bullying and intimidation — were too great to give her another shot at another top job.

"We need the most qualified person … the person who knows our community, the person who knows dropout prevention," said board member Linda Lerner. "I'm not going to put someone in there who needs a success plan."

"There's too many red flags," said board member Robin Wikle.

The board action followed a story in Tuesday's St. Petersburg Times about Hernandez, who left a teaching job in Manatee County last year to take over the professional development department. The story noted a rare staff survey that top Pinellas officials commissioned in late spring to gauge employee sentiment about Hernandez and her leadership abilities. The story also noted the district ordered an investigation into Hernandez's role in filling out her husband's job application, and that Janssen had provided Hernandez with a glowing reference when she applied for a district job in 2008. Janssen and Hernandez know each other from graduate school at the University of South Florida.

Lerner, Wikle, Janet Clark, Carol Cook and Mary Brown voted for a motion to reject Janssen's recommendation. Peggy O'Shea and Nina Hayden voted against it.

"There comes a time as a board member where I have to allow Dr. Janssen to make certain decisions," Hayden said. "This is one where I'd be more inclined to defer to Dr. Janssen."

It's not clear where Hernandez, who makes $76,549 a year, will go next.

"We'll go forward," Janssen said. "We'll find a place for her … that will better match her skills."

The board's action means she technically remains a director in human resources. But Lerner and Clark told Janssen they expect Hernandez will be moved out of professional development — and soon.

"I understand on paper that's what it is," Lerner said. "But I certainly have the expectation that the proper place for Dr. Hernandez will be found in not too long a time."

In other business, the board:

• Unanimously approved an ever-so-slight decrease in property tax rates to support a new $1.4 billion budget. The new rate is $8.34 for every $1,000 of taxable property value, down from last year's rate of $8.35.

The district cut $16.6 million to balance the budget, including $2.6 million from staff reductions and $2.3 million from shifting more health care costs to employees. The new budget includes $35.9 million in federal stimulus money.

• Voted unanimously to finalize a tougher attendance policy that will make it harder for students to be exempt from final exams. It is effective immediately.

The district loosened the rules last year in the wake of swine flu fears, allowing high schoolers with an A or B average to skip finals no matter how many days they had missed. Under the new policy, students with an A or B average must still take the final if they have five or more absences (excused or unexcused) per semester in any class.

The board included three specific exceptions that will not be counted as absences: religious holidays, school-sponsored activities and college visitation days.

• Unanimously approved a settlement in a decade-old class-action suit that accused the district of depriving black students of a quality education.

The settlement in Crowley vs. the Pinellas County School Board, which goes before a judge for final approval today, essentially merges that case with another one that deals with black student achievement. Under it, the district agrees to "give full and prompt consideration" to any future charter school applications that are "located in and designed to serve student needs in the black community."

Pinellas school board rejects request to move official to key post 09/14/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 7:36am]
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