LARGO — Most Pinellas County School Board members are giving superintendent Julie Janssen a thumbs up for her first year on the job.
Six of seven board members gave Janssen mostly above-average ratings on her first evaluation, which was completed last week. And some of them said her performance was especially strong given historically deep budget cuts that led the district to close some schools and deny teachers a pay raise.
"That was a big cloud that hung over every decision she had to make," said board member Carol Cook. "As a brand new superintendent, she did a good job, far better than I expected in many areas."
The board used a 1-to-5 scale to grade Janssen in nine areas, including leadership, communications and labor relations. Every board member but Janet Clark gave Janssen 4s and 5s in a majority of categories.
Clark gave Janssen seven 2s, but said those marks shouldn't be considered negative.
As a first-time superintendent who was not groomed for the job, Janssen "started out at zero," Clark said. "I'm expecting growth," she continued. "And I would expect if Julie is becoming a better and better superintendent, the scores she receives will get higher and higher every year."
Janssen said she was pleased with the overall marks, but would continue striving to improve.
"There isn't a single area you stop working on," she said. "I'm going to look at every area, starting with No. 1 and going to No. 9."
The board hired Janssen in September 2008, a few months after Clayton Wilcox abruptly left for a top job at Scholastic Corp. Her first full calendar year on the job was bookended by big headlines: an unpopular decision to close seven schools and the death of a Pinellas Park High student who was trying to catch a school bus. In between, Janssen wrestled with the teachers union over salaries and schedules, and made a legal promise to improve the achievement of black students.
She also hit a few bumps.
In September, some criticized Janssen's decision to give excused absences to students whose parents didn't want them to hear a stay-in-school speech by President Barack Obama. And last month, she came under fire after the bus tragedy for giving a policy-laced answer at an emotional time when asked what she would tell parents who thought the bus system was flawed.
"I think she really walked into the hornet's nest," board member Mary Brown said about Janssen's first year. "And I think she handled it quite well."
Janssen scored highest for values and ethics of leadership.
She scored lowest for policy and governance.
"This is a tricky area for any superintendent," Cook said.
As an example, she said Janssen was left to deal with fallout from Wilcox's decision to move forward, without board input, on a plan to give more decision-making power to teachers and principals at individual schools. Janssen initially pressed forward too, Cook said, but then allowed the board to have input and craft policy to guide the change.
The superintendent realized "nothing was going to move smoothly before we got the horse before the cart again," Cook said.
Clark said Janssen deserves credit for learning quickly on the job, but singled out several areas where she disagreed with the superintendent's decisions.
She said Janssen should not have stuck with a controversial change to middle school schedules that saddled teachers with an extra class. She said Janssen should have made more changes in top administrative ranks.
"A great many of them have had the opportunity over the past 15 to 30 years to improve student achievement," Clark said. "She needed some of that institutional knowledge … but I also think she could have used a little more innovation and creativity."
Clark said the flap over the district's bus system ties into her point.
A slew of parents complained during the first week of school about large numbers of students at arterial bus stops, which are located on major roads. Administrators later concluded that district bus routers may not have known they were collectively slotting scores of students at the same stops.
Clark said she told Janssen, "Heads should have rolled."
Janssen said Clark told her ahead of time that she would be giving her low marks.
"We'll just continue to work, and somewhere along the way I hope I can convince her to raise the scores," she said.
Janssen's evaluation process was expected to be completed months ago, but dragged on because some members did not turn in their reviews until November.
The board is scheduled to discuss the evaluation at a workshop Tuesday.
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.