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Pinellas superintendent asked Hillsborough schools' attorney for advice

Pinellas County schools superintendent Julie Janssen wanted to know if the School Board could discuss her job performance in private.

But she didn't ask the Pinellas School Board attorney if the meeting could be closed to the public.

She sought outside legal advice from Hillsborough County School Board attorney Tom Gonzalez, according to an e-mail sent to Pinellas School Board members from their attorney.

Facing increased scrutiny over her leadership of the 103,000-student district, Janssen and the seven-member board that appointed her are expected to meet in a public workshop Thursday to discuss her job performance.

Until now, no one has questioned publicly whether the meeting is exempt from Florida's open meetings law.

But according to a June 16 e-mail from Pinellas School Board attorney Jim Robinson, Janssen called Gonzalez on Wednesday to ask, "whether, given the topic of the discussion, this portion of the workshop needed to be open to the public."

Robinson learned of Janssen's inquiry after Gonzalez phoned him.

"He assured her the topic must be discussed in the sunshine," Robinson wrote in the e-mail. "Of course, we in the Office of General Counsel are of the same opinion."

Janssen did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Gonzalez wouldn't "confirm, deny or acknowledge" any such conversation Monday. "I don't make comment on people I have conversations with in the practice of law," he said.

According to Robinson, Janssen didn't seek similar counsel with his office. Robinson was on vacation that day, but associate counsel David Koperski said Janssen didn't call him either.

"We're available to her," Koperski said.

Board members Peggy O'Shea and Janet Clark noted that Gonzalez is considered an authority in Florida education matters and even the board has consulted with from time to time.

Board members Linda Lerner and Terry Krassner also said they don't fault Janssen for the call. "If she were doing it on a regular basis, it would raise concerns," Lerner said.

Board members Robin Wikle and Lew Williams said the news raises questions about the level of confidence Janssen has in the in-house attorneys.

Janssen and Robinson are at odds over an issue involving a former assistant superintendent who requested copyright privileges from the board for a teacher evaluation she developed — an issue that has forced five board members to question Janssen's judgment.

Janssen says she received inadequate legal advice from Robinson on the matter. Robinson says that by district policy Janssen was required to do her homework to ensure the copyright request met district rules.

"It's almost like wanting a second opinion," Williams said, "and not accepting the opinion of in-house counsel."

Board chairwoman Carol Cook said she is withholding judgment on the matter. "I'm not going to say who she can and can't talk to," Cook said. "I don't know what I would do in the same situation."

One thing the board members agreed upon was that the meeting will be public — even though not all of them like it.

O'Shea said she wishes Florida had an exemption allowing such personnel discussions to happen behind closed doors.

"You could be damaging their reputation," she said, "even if they did nothing wrong."

The discussion is set for 9 a.m. Thursday at district headquarters, 301 Fourth St. SW in Largo, Room 203 ABC.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

Pinellas superintendent asked Hillsborough schools' attorney for advice 06/21/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 21, 2011 7:02am]
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