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Turmoil in Pinellas schools leadership comes at time of big challenges

The Pinellas County school system is headed into a seventh straight year of budget cuts. It's rolling out an earth-shaking change to teacher evaluations. And amid a sour economy and mad-as-heck voters, it will have to help persuade people to renew a tax referendum that puts an average of $3,000 into the pocket of every teacher.

The challenges would test the leadership of the steadiest of districts.

But embattled Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen indicated this week she may not have her job much longer, while board members seemed to be pressing for a decision on her future in less than two weeks. If Janssen goes, the district would likely have an interim chief for months while it looked for a replacement.

Given the looming high-stakes issues, Pinellas' leadership tussles couldn't come at a dicier time.

"If there continues to be somewhat dysfunctional relationships between (Janssen and the board), it will distract from other missions," said Marshall Ogletree, executive director of the Pinellas teachers union, which is still negotiating contract terms with the district. But then again, he said, it won't be a breeze for a new superintendent "when we have the challenges of a new (teacher) appraisal system, the first pilot for performance pay, a lot of different things we haven't done before."

It's not clear where board members are headed on Janssen. None has publicly stated a preferred outcome.

But a majority said this week they want a special meeting Aug. 23 on top of a previously scheduled workshop to discuss the superintendent's progress. Members Terry Krassner, Linda Lerner and Lew Williams officially indicated their desire for a meeting, while member Robin Wikle told the St. Petersburg Times she supported the idea.

Members can take action at meetings. They can't at workshops.

Many community leaders say they're yearning for clarity on who will lead the district as its challenges grow.

Bob McIntyre, speaking as past chairman of the Pinellas Education Foundation, said the business-heavy group supports the board and Janssen. But speaking as a private citizen, McIntyre, who is chairman and chief executive of Ditek Corp. said, "They just need to make a decision."

"It's time not to let this thing stretch out," he said. "I'm getting a little tired of reading about it."

Pinellas has four struggling schools on the lowest rung of the state's rating scale, more than all but two other districts. On a related note, there's growing scrutiny over the fact that black students in Pinellas continue to fall behind black students elsewhere.

Community activist Watson Haynes, a Janssen supporter, said the district has made progress with legal agreements to better the plight of black students. To date, he said, the "severe turmoil" at the top of the district has not hurt those efforts.

But eventually, he worried, it could.

"The school system has been able to continue to operate with some sense of understanding of mission," Haynes said. "But I think it's getting worse and worse every day."

Beth Rawlins, who chairs Citizens for Pinellas Schools, the political action committee that led the charge for the property tax referendum in 2004 and 2008, said as a citizen, "I am troubled by strained relations" between district leaders. But she said she didn't think the problems there would undermine next year's vote for a renewal.

The money, about $30 million a year, is set aside for certain programs, and is overseen by an independent citizens committee.

"The people of Pinellas County believe in all the things this money does," Rawlins said. "They step up, regardless of their opinion of the district."

Whether they will again remains to be seen. But in the meantime, it's not hard to find parents and others who say the constant bickering is getting old.

"It's irritating. It's like, get over it," said April Towers, whose daughter is headed to fourth grade at Southern Oak Elementary in Largo. The board and superintendent "need to decide whether they're going to work together or not."

Southern Oak was caught in leadership cross fire last year. Janssen proposed a new grade configuration for the school. But board members quashed the idea when it turned out it hadn't been thoroughly vetted.

At Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School in Largo, John Hauser said parents have yet to be notified of the new principal who will be taking over — even though school begins in barely a week. He said that echoes much-publicized communication problems between Janssen and the School Board.

Problems at the top "definitely give you the appearance of a machine that's not operating on all cylinders," said Hauser, who's on Morgan Fitz's school advisory council. "It's like an engine that's missing a spark plug. It's not getting the performance it should."

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

Turmoil in Pinellas schools leadership comes at time of big challenges 08/12/11 [Last modified: Friday, August 12, 2011 10:57pm]
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