Superintendent Julie Janssen's rocky road comes to an end

Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen was fired Tuesday, ending a turbulent, three-year tenure but leaving one of the nation's biggest school districts looking for its fourth leader in seven years.

A focused and politely forceful School Board took less than an hour before voting 7-0 to terminate Janssen's contract. It also began moving quickly toward the hiring of a potential interim superintendent.

Janssen, under constant fire for a year, has often bristled at criticism. But at the end, in front of TV cameras and two rows of family members, she was resigned and gracious.

"I have confidence that . . . whoever you bring in as interim or the new superintendent . . . will find their niche and continue to help our district thrive," she said after the votes. "Thank you for giving me the opportunity."

The board dismissed Janssen "without cause." Under her contract, that means it must pay her up to a full year's salary ($203,000) plus benefits over the next year, less the amount she'll earn if she lands another job.

Her exit propels Florida's seventh-biggest district into its third superintendent search since 2004, at a time of unprecedented challenges. And yet, the post-firing mood wasn't entirely somber.

While some board members held back tears, others talked of a fresh start.

"The turmoil, hopefully, will end today," said board chairwoman Carol Cook, a Janssen supporter. "And we can start focusing on our students and what's right for Pinellas County staff and schools."

• • •

She was not the first choice.

Janssen, 62, was hired in September 2008 after the School Board's first pick, Alberto Carvalho, accepted the top job in Miami-Dade.

A longtime teacher and principal, she rose to the district's No. 2 spot in 2006. Many viewed her as the insider whose deep roots in the district and community — she is a member of the well-known Mastry family — would put Pinellas back in the limelight.

The hurdles were huge.

Janssen took over the 101,000-student district as it was in the midst of a six-year, $170 million budget slashing. It was in the early stages of a return to neighborhood schools, which concentrated thousands of low-income students, especially in St. Petersburg. And like every other district in the state, it was about to be swamped by a historic wave of state education mandates that would leave its 8,000 teachers feeling crushed.

Being Pinellas superintendent would have been walking-on-glass tough for anybody. But Janssen inflicted some of her own wounds.

Parents, teachers and School Board members alike complained about her failure to vet proposals before airing them, which forced the district to publicly flip flop on one initiative after another. She looked uncertain in crises. She sounded tone deaf in high-profile situations. She shrugged at some board directives.

For example, after a wave of brawls and arrests rocked John Hopkins Middle School, Janssen told parents and teachers the situation had been "so blown out of proportion." For months, she stood by a department director — a friend from graduate school — despite accusations that the woman created a climate of fear. And when the St. Petersburg Times profiled a teacher who had been returned to the classroom after three decades of persistent complaints, Janssen said, "You can't predict that her behaviors haven't changed."

On the flip side, Pinellas' graduation rate ticked up on Janssen's watch. She made inroads with plaintiffs in the district's thorny desegregation case. And even many of her critics conceded she had a big heart and was maniacally hard-working.

"She's all about the kids in Pinellas County. I'm not really sure what your agenda is," Dexter Rogers, one of a handful of teachers and others who spoke on Janssen's behalf, told the School Board. "She should be able to continue her path to success."

"I want to thank you for your service to the district and your commitment to our kids," Peggy O'Shea, Janssen's strongest ally on the board, said after the vote, her voice breaking from emotion. "You led us through three years of extremely challenging times."

• • •

There was no solid evidence, though, that Pinellas had stopped losing academic ground to Florida's other big districts. And in the meantime, Janssen's missteps were adding up.

Time and again, the same kinds of mistakes were made, spawning mobs of angry parents and teachers. One idea after another was rushed, floated, shot to pieces. A change in elementary school start times. A plan to end lucrative pay supplements for some magnet teachers. A proposal to move the prestigious and beloved International Baccalaureate program from Palm Harbor University High to Countryside High.

All flared, then fizzled.

Board members gave Janssen chance after chance, until frustration reached a boiling point at an extraordinary workshop in June. Get better in the next two months, board members told her. Or else.

In the majority's view, she didn't get better.

"This is a sad day for me, personally and professionally," said board member Linda Lerner. "I wanted Dr. Janssen to succeed. . . . I had hoped things would be different."

Board member Lew Williams, a longtime district administrator before he won a board seat last fall, said he wondered whether his years of working closely with Janssen before she became superintendent made him less aggressive in voicing his criticisms — and her less diligent in responding to them.

"I think she gave it her best," Williams said. "But there were just too many distractions and difficulties for me to be supportive at this hour."

• • •

Tensions persisted until the end.

Janssen initially pushed for a much more generous severance package. She offered to resign in exchange for a year's worth of pay and benefits, with no deduction if she were hired elsewhere. Some board members said no way.

Her attorney, Ron Meyer of Tallahassee, withdrew the offer at the beginning of Tuesday's meeting, citing recent changes in state law that may have curbed what could be doled out.

Meyer also alluded to rumblings that some board members wanted to fire Janssen "with cause," which would end her contract on specific grounds related to her performance.

That route could have resulted in no payout. But it also could have opened the door to a nasty legal fight — a possibility Meyer highlighted.

"It's going to drag on and it's going to keep this district in the news and in disarray for a period of time that God only knows how long it will last," he said.

The board didn't go there.

Instead, a majority agreed to allow Janssen to leave Sept. 2, suggesting she could smooth the way for an interim chief who may be on board as early as next Tuesday.

Janssen said she was sad her career in Pinellas was ending sooner than she intended and disappointed that the spotlight was on her this week rather than on a fairly smooth start to a new school year.

But like the board, she didn't sound totally glum either. Her retirement benefits, according to the state, will be about $8,800 a month.

"I've never not had a job," she said. "I think I'd like to know what that feels like."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8707.

What's next

LAST DAY: Superintendent Julie Janssen's last day is Sept. 2.

Hire an interim: A majority of the School Board agreed Tuesday to negotiate with John A. Stewart, a former top Pinellas administrator. The board will take up the issue Aug. 30.

A NEW SEARCH: Board members have yet to discuss the scope, including cost.

Superintendent Julie Janssen's rocky road comes to an end 08/23/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 24, 2011 1:22am]

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