In an unusual move, the Pinellas County School Board wants to talk publicly about frustrations with superintendent Julie Janssen's leadership.
A majority of board members said Thursday they are concerned about what they see as a long-running pattern of poor decisionmaking and a lack of communication.
Translation: They're fed up.
"I really feel we need to have some open dialogue, as painful as it might be," said board member Terry Krassner. "I definitely feel like it's long overdue."
Janssen said she, too, thinks they need to talk. In fact, she said she was going to bring it up herself.
"I'm not going to be able to address (board members' concerns) until I know exactly what they're thinking of," she said. "I think it needs to be out there."
Board member Linda Lerner told the St. Petersburg Times that she will recommend at a board meeting Tuesday that time for a discussion about Janssen be set aside at a June 21 workshop.
When contacted, Krassner and members Robin Wikle and Janet Clark all said a public airing is a good idea.
Wikle, who first raised the issue two weeks ago, called Lerner's pitch "a very wise move."
Janssen was hired in late 2008. Her tenure has been tumultuous over the past 18 months. Time and again, critics point to the same problems: Tone-deaf responses to crises. Failure to get input from parents and teachers. Communication breakdowns with the public, the staff and the School Board.
In March 2010, teachers criticized Janssen for responding too slowly to the brawls and arrests that enveloped John Hopkins Middle School. A few months later, the board slammed her for sticking by a high-level administrator accused of creating a culture of fear. And last fall, Janssen's plan to create new academic programs sparked a series of revolts — and a slew of flip-flops — as angry parents complained of being blindsided.
"I want us to be viewed in a positive light," Krassner said. "I see teachers knocking their brains out. Principals knocking their brains out. So many positive things going on with our students. And we never get to see that because we're going from one negative situation to the next."
Janssen, who makes $200,000 annually, agreed that distractions have hurt the district's image.
"While we're doing some things really good, there are some things I'm going to take full responsibility for," she said.
At the same time, Janssen said her administration has faced unrelenting scrutiny from the media, particularly the St. Petersburg Times.
"I have no doubt there were lots of negative things that could have been printed five years ago, 10 years ago" but weren't, she said. "But it's a new world with the Web, reporting in mid-sentence."
She added: "I really don't think I'm doing that bad a job. I've got to adjust to a new way of the media. I have to because we cannot afford any more negative press to take away from the great things the kids are doing."
Two recent developments may have tipped the scales for board members.
This week, Janssen abruptly postponed the fall conversion of struggling Melrose Elementary School into a partnership school with the University of Florida. Her decision came after teachers and other staffers were told in April that they would have to re-interview for their jobs and after the district created promotional material touting the change.
Some board members found the matter especially frustrating because, in their view, it violated a step-by-step decisionmaking process Janssen had agreed to after the parent uprising last fall.
"I thought … we would have transparency and good communication," Lerner said. "I don't see that happening."
Janssen said in her initial response that the Melrose venture was a curriculum matter and did not need board approval.
She offered a different take Thursday.
"There's some things they expect to come to the board, and some things I felt shouldn't," she said. "But they're in charge. So I have to clearly get feedback from them."
The second thing: Janssen's decision last month to investigate regional superintendent Carol Thomas.
Lerner mentioned her broader concerns about Janssen during a phone interview about Thomas. Earlier this week, she sent Janssen an e-mail raising questions about the superintendent's knowledge of the matter.
A district report released Saturday said Thomas and another district administrator — during regular business hours — helped develop and market a computerized program to improve the teacher appraisal process. But in a rebuttal, Thomas, who has since resigned, said she consistently communicated with Janssen about what she was doing.
"I still don't feel like I know what the whole truth is," Clark said. "I feel that way about other things, like there's always something I'm not hearing."
Clark declined to be specific.
She said her concerns with Janssen are "cumulative" and "continual." She noted that Janssen's contract, which board members voted last year to extend through September 2013, requires that the superintendent be given notice in writing before receiving an unsatisfactory evaluation.
"I'm at the point right now that the board needs to have a conversation about whether or not we need to, as per Julie's contract, give her the notice and have her make a plan as to how to resolve the issues we have," Clark said.
At a May 26 board meeting, Wikle made a motion to pull Janssen's contract for review but withdrew it after other board members said they were confused by her intentions.
"It's our job to be diligent in making sure that competent leadership is in place, especially during these times when critical decisions are being made," Wikle said Thursday.
Board chairwoman Carol Cook said she wanted to hear from other board members before she could say whether she supports such a discussion.
Board member Peggy O'Shea said she doesn't see the need for a group discussion of Janssen's performance beyond the superintendent's already scheduled evaluation, which is due Sept. 1. The evaluation incorporates school testing data that isn't released by the state until the summer, she said, so attempting to rate Janssen before then would be premature.
O'Shea, Janssen's strongest ally on the board, also said that if a board member has a problem with Janssen, the board member can talk to her directly.
"She's usually available," she said.
Board member Lew Williams could not be reached for comment.
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8707.