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Time for Pinellas school chief to step up

For 14 years the Pinellas County school system, one of the largest in the nation, was led and dominated by a larger-than-life superintendent, Howard Hinesley.

I always liked him (maybe it was the name) but, man, he was the Bureaucrat In Charge. Surrounded by aides and deputies for this and that, Hinesley barely tolerated questions from the weak School Board.

This model of strong superintendent, insular and unresponsive bureaucracy and weak School Board persists today — except with less of the "strong superintendent" part.

Hinesley's successor from 2004-08 was Clayton Wilcox, who tried to be dynamic but often came across as brusque, flippant or know-it-all-ish. It did not take. He was always the New Guy.

When the search to replace Wilcox in 2008 backfired, the safe choice devolved upon Julie Janssen, a career district employee, teacher, principal and administrator.

Safe and comfortable. Everybody liked Julie Janssen.

The teachers liked her. The teachers union practically demanded her selection. The staff celebrated her hiring.

Also make no mistake: She is universally described as dedicated, committed, incredibly hard working, strong on academics.

It is a shame that she is so often just plain flatfooted as a leader.

Her time as superintendent has featured one flub after another, involving two main themes: (1) protection of the bureaucracy and the inability to make tough personnel calls and (2) tone-deaf denial and slow response to crises.

Her first day of school in 2009 featured a fiasco of the school bus schedule. "We could have done a better job of putting that out," she said.

When yet another student was killed crossing the busy street where her school bus stop was located, she said: "You know those are decisions that parents make when they choose to allow their children to go to a school that's not their zoned school."

She tolerated, even recommended a transfer for, an old friend and administrator who was accused of creating a "climate of fear." The School Board rejected the transfer. Said Janssen later: "It's unfortunate some of the things she did."

When frequent violence and mayhem at John Hopkins Middle School erupted into a public crisis, she told parents the controversy was "blown out of proportion." Again, this was too much for the School Board, let alone parents.

This week there was the news of a high school English teacher who had been repeatedly scrutinized and reprimanded over 33 years.

I laughed out loud at one of the headlines: "Story of Teacher Shocks Officials."

Really? "Shocks" them? Aren't they running the school system? Janssen said the teacher was returned to the classroom despite her past because "you can't predict her behaviors haven't changed."

Last, trying to find out anything about the public's business from the Janssen administration is like trying to get information from the North Koreans. It is borderline criminal — and her fault.

The School Board is restless and shows signs of throwing off its Hinesley-era torpor. Good. It would be even better for the superintendent to get out in front, to throw open the doors, to anticipate rather than react, to reform rather than defend, to add to her range of strengths rather than continue to indulge her weaknesses. There is not all the time in the world.

Time for Pinellas school chief to step up 03/30/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 7:12pm]
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