Julie Janssen wouldn't make the honor roll if this year's School Board candidates were grading her performance. The St. Petersburg Times asked all nine to give the superintendent a letter grade. Four gave her B's. Four gave her C's. Only District 3 incumbent Peggy O'Shea gave her an A, and even then it was a line-straddling "A or B."
"She's in a really hard class," cracked District 6 candidate Brian Hawley, who gave her a C+.
"I want all A's ... I'll work on the C's," Janssen said in response. "I'll have to work with them and get them to know the details of what we're working on. Every time you touch something … you step on somebody's toes."
Janssen was hired in fall 2008, in the midst of a historic budget crisis. She navigated a painful round of school closings. The district's graduation rate is rising fast.
On the other hand, Janssen has made a couple of public gaffes. She looked flat-footed when brawls became a big story at John Hopkins Middle. And she gets the blame when the district is accused of not communicating well with parents or employees.
The board voted 7-0 in April to extend Janssen's contract through September 2013. Here's how the candidates graded her:
Fonda Huff: C-
Huff, a math/science coach in the district, said Janssen needs to improve the flow of information to the School Board. She pointed to some principal and assistant principal transfers that weren't recommended to the board until the night before a vote. She also criticized Janssen for recommending the rehiring of top administrators who had reached the five-year limit in the state's deferred retirement program. "They knew these people were in DROP. Why weren't other people trained?" Huff said.
Terry Krassner: C
Janssen came into a tough situation following the departure of former superintendent Clayton Wilcox and had to make a series of hard decisions, said Krassner, a retired principal. But the superintendent could have done better soliciting input on the change in school start times that the board approved and then reversed. Krassner also said she wasn't sure if Janssen has surrounded herself with a "core group that is diversified and that is going to ask tough questions and challenge you."
"It takes a good three years to build the culture you're looking for," Krassner added. "I'd like to give her the benefit of the doubt..."
Peggy O'Shea: A or B
O'Shea, who voted to extend Janssen's contract, sees the district improving — and credits Janssen for handling difficult times. "She gets it from us as well as from parents, kids, administrators. She's getting it from all sides. She's got to be frustrated at times, but she doesn't let it show." O'Shea also credited Janssen for being a good listener and for being able to focus despite the distractions. Why, then, would O'Shea give Janssen a B instead of an A? "Communication is still an issue in this district," she said. "It's been an issue since the beginning of time."
Greg Hunsinger: C or C-
A retired science teacher, Hunsinger said Janssen's decisions sometimes fail to consider what's happening in the classrooms. "I think that she's trying, but I don't think she's getting all the information and advice that a strong School Board should offer," he said. He said he would not have voted to extend Janssen's contract three years. A year would have been better, he said.
Linda Lerner: B
On the upside: Lerner, who also voted to extend Janssen's contract, gives her credit for directing the district through a prolonged budget crisis, and for pursuing some bold efforts, including an overhaul of the district's professional development programs for teachers.
On the downside: Janssen needs to get more input before making decisions and recommendations to the board, she said. "That absolutely needs to be implemented in a more effective way," she said.
Brian Hawley: C+
Janssen needs to earn better buy-in from teachers and offer them more input into decisionmaking, said Hawley, a teacher at Largo Middle. He also slammed her recommendation to rehire top administrators. "I can't say I'm overly pleased with her performance," he said. "That being said, I think she's had an extremely difficult job with what she's come into. Anybody with the greatest qualifications would have a hard time succeeding."
Jim Jackson: B
A retired professor, Jackson panned what he called her "indecisiveness" over recent issues, like whether to cut pay for academic coaches or change school start times. But when asked what grade he would give her, Jackson said "a B, as in boy." "I think she's done a pretty decent job," he said. Asked what he believes Janssen has done well, Jackson said the sitting board seems to have confidence in her. "I don't want to say she hasn't done anything well, but I can't put my finger on anything that she has done well," he said.
Lew Williams: B-
Williams, a retired district administrator, said Janssen knows curriculum, cares about kids and wants to close achievement gaps. "I think she wants to provide an environment where all students can succeed," he said. So why not an A? "If some of the things I read are accurate, I think that sometimes she may not be getting all the information she needs from her subordinates to make timely decisions," he said. More specifically, Williams pointed to discipline problems that blew up at John Hopkins Middle in March. When things are going well, he said, the superintendent gets credit. When they're not, she gets the criticism.
Keisha Bell: B
Bell, a self-employed lawyer, said Janssen deserves credit for bringing new ideas to the table, even if it makes some people uncomfortable. But she said the superintendent needs to work on communications with the community and the board. "That needs to be strengthened for people to better understand what she's trying to get done," Bell said.