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Schism growing at top of Pinellas County School District

Asked if superintendent Julie Janssen and board attorney Jim Robinson are working together optimally, a board member said, “Probably not.”

DIRK SHADD | Times

Asked if superintendent Julie Janssen and board attorney Jim Robinson are working together optimally, a board member said, “Probably not.”

As the Pinellas School Board puts superintendent Julie Janssen under more scrutiny, it's also watching a growing rift between Janssen and the district's other top official, board attorney Jim Robinson.

The tension recently surfaced on several issues. And it appears to be dividing the board as it prepares to discuss a possible restructuring of the district legal office.

"I think it matters hugely," said board chairwoman Carol Cook of the relationship between Janssen and Robinson. "We cannot function if … our two employees cannot work together in a cooperative manner."

Janssen did not return a call and e-mail for comment. Robinson declined to comment. Conflicts between them may seem far removed from the district's day-to-day mission. But it's another sign that things are not humming along in the state's seventh-biggest school system.

Among the issues where Janssen and Robinson have been at odds:

Problems with a high-level administrator. Robinson, among others, raised concerns last year about Janet Hernandez, the former professional development director who went to graduate school with Janssen and was accused of creating a culture of fear in her department. Hernandez ultimately resigned in December, but the months-long controversy eroded board members' faith in how Janssen handles personnel matters.

Partnership with the University of Florida. Janssen is working with UF to create a "lab school" at Melrose Elementary that would emphasize teacher training. She said in early June that she did not need board approval for the venture, even though Robinson told her in May that she did. After the story broke and board members got upset, Janssen said she would bring it before the board after all.

The Carol Thomas situation. Janssen said she relied on Robinson's expertise when Thomas, a former regional superintendent, sought to copyright an educational tool she created. Thomas announced her retirement in May after an investigation concluded she was "dishonest" about the extent of her involvement with the commercial marketing of her product. At least one board member took Janssen's words as a dig at Robinson.

Advice from outside counsel. Before last week's workshop on her performance, Janssen called Hillsborough School Board attorney Tom Gonzalez to ask if the meeting could be private. Robinson was on vacation, she said by way of explanation. In an e-mail to board members, Robinson noted that Gonzalez said no, then added: "Of course, we in the Office of General Counsel are of the same opinion."

Board members have taken notice of the souring relationship. During last week's workshop, they waded deep into a discussion about whether one of the district's attorneys, who now reports to Robinson, should instead report to Janssen. Part of the reason they're talking about it, board member Janet Clark said, is the "ongoing lack of good, working relations between the superintendent and the attorney."

For years, a "staff attorney" reported to the superintendent instead of the general counsel. But the board changed the structure to its current form in 2009.

Now, at a July 14 workshop, it'll discuss the possibility of switching it back, with at least three board members — Cook, Peggy O'Shea and Janet Clark — saying they're open to the idea.

"There are times when you do need a separation," said O'Shea.

"If we had a staff attorney and a board attorney, who are not having to speak with one voice … I think it would be a good thing," said Clark. "I don't know if that's where we are (headed) right now … but I'm willing to listen to it."

Cook referenced Janssen's call to the Hillsborough attorney as one reason the structure needs review. She said the strain between Janssen and Robinson will be part of the discussion.

"Everybody has their own different perspective as to the degree of tension. (But) part of it is going to have to be, in this discussion, is this part of why things need to be restructured?" she said. Robinson, who was hired in 2005 and makes $173,120 a year, also clashed with Janssen's predecessor, Clayton Wilcox.

In February 2008, the school board ordered the pair to find a facilitator. The men called a truce a month later. Wilcox announced his resignation two weeks after that.

The board gave Robinson high marks during his most recent evaluation last summer. In February, it voted 7-0 to extend his contract through October 2014.

Nobody suggests the differences between Robinson and Janssen are anywhere near as bad as the "civil war" between Robinson and Wilcox. "As long as they are working together, and they're doing their jobs, and it's not causing an issue in how they do their work, that's just life," Clark said. "I'm not saying that's all it is. But at this point in time, that's how I'm going to take it."

Asked whether Janssen and Robinson were working together optimally, board member Linda Lerner said, "Probably not."

But she said the issue can be addressed. And without putting one of the district attorneys under Janssen.

"We're one district," she said. "We need one legal counsel in one place."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Schism growing at top of Pinellas County School District 07/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 2, 2011 4:15pm]

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