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School chief's tipping point?

Near the heart of current tensions between the Pinellas County School Board and superintendent Julie Janssen lies an issue far from the usual hot-button education topics like FCAT scores, school safety or dropout rates.

An insider flap over a high-ranking administrator's effort to obtain copyright privileges for a product she developed has raised so many questions it has shaken some board members' confidence in Janssen.

"I just don't know where the truth lies," board member Janet Clark said.

Janssen and the board will sit down Thursday to publicly discuss Janssen's job performance. And while Janssen has faced criticism about her leadership before, her handling of the copyright matter appears to have served as a tipping point for several members.

Janssen says the only thing she did wrong was trust the word of an esteemed staff member and then rely on the opinion of a board attorney as to the proper way to handle the matter.

"I believe I followed the process," she said Friday. "I still believe I followed the process."

But for five of seven board members, what transpired deserves closer scrutiny.

"It starts at the top," said Robin Wikle, the first board member to ask for an immediate review of Janssen's performance.

The issue first came to the School Board's attention as members prepared for their April 26 meeting. Janssen included an item on the agenda recommending the district relinquish copyright privileges to Carol Thomas for a product she developed to assist in teacher evaluations.

Thomas, an assistant superintendent with 31 years in the district, had "created it on her own time with her own resources, and not as a result of the performance of her assigned duties," Janssen's written recommendation said.

The product, called ETIP for "Enhancing Teacher Instructional Practice," was an electronic program enabling principals and administrators to easily evaluate teachers during classroom walk-throughs, according to the description.

Board member Linda Lerner said just reading the item sparked questions. After all, Lerner thought, Thomas oversees several schools and is charged with helping principals thoroughly evaluate their teachers; how could this not overlap with her official duties?

"This is what she does," Lerner said during the board meeting.

More board questions followed.

"Is there any documentation, any proof that this was not developed in the fulfilling of her duties?" Clark asked.

Janssen called on Thomas to "explain how it came about, Where did she work on it?"

Then, Janssen used a phrase that raised red flags for some of those gathered:

"I believe," Janssen said, "it was a project of hers in her inquiry."

In Pinellas County school circles, "inquiry project" is a phrase used to describe a formal problem-solving process that administrators embark upon as part of their duties.

To board member Terry Krassner, that phrase alone indicated the evaluation tool was developed on district time.

After still more questioning, Janssen again recommended giving Thomas the copyright, which would allow her to sell the product for personal profit. Thomas, Janssen explained, had agreed to allow Pinellas to use it free of charge forever.

"I believed her presentation to me," Janssen said from the board table. "I had no reason to doubt. She said she did this completely separate from her job duties. … She's been a loyal, hardworking person under my tenure and so in good faith I brought this forward."

The seven-member board voted 4-3 to give Thomas the copyright. Krassner, Clark and Lerner dissented.

One week later, according to district records, deputy superintendent Jim Madden asked the Office of Professional Standards to launch an investigation into Thomas' activities to see whether she had violated district policies barring her from using her position for personal gain. Thomas relinquished the copyright.

Janssen said Friday that she called for the probe because some of Thomas' answers during the board meeting didn't match things Thomas had previously told her. Nor, Janssen and board attorney Jim Robinson said, did they align with her discussions with Robinson.

On May 20, the investigation determined Thomas and another administrator who helped her were "dishonest about the extent of their involvement with the commercial marketing" of her evaluation program. It said that while Thomas performed much of the work outside of business hours, e-mails showed substantial communication about the project during the day. Additionally, the report said, at least two meetings about the marketing and development of ETIP were held during the workday.

Janssen placed Thomas on paid leave, and Thomas soon after retired.

Janssen wrote in a June 8 e-mail to Lerner that it wasn't until the April 26 meeting that she heard Thomas' work described using the district's jargon "inquiry project" — and that was one reason her office started the investigation. But she said she chose to investigate after the board meeting rather than pull the item at the board table.

Lerner said Friday that Janssen should probably have listened to the tape of the meeting before she wrote that. Janssen herself was the first to use the word "inquiry" during the meeting.

But Janssen said Friday that, for her, that word simply describes a problem-solving process commonly employed in the district. She was using the term generically.

"What matters is, in the process of developing this tool, did she use the resources of the district?" Janssen said. "If so, then she should not get the copyright."

Thomas, who did not respond to a request for comment for this story, sent the district a three-page rebuttal to the investigation's findings. She wrote that she regularly communicated with Janssen and Madden about the product's development.

"It was my intent to develop a simple product that could be used to demonstrate that Pinellas was forward-thinking and a leader in the state in regard to addressing teacher appraisal," Thomas wrote.

Janssen said Friday that while Thomas kept her somewhat apprised of what sounded like an excellent idea, Janssen had warned Thomas there was a fine line to walk to avoid conflict of interest.

"I was skeptical," Janssen told the Times. "And I thought there were things I didn't know to ask and so I sent her to the general counsel because that's his area of expertise."

Told of Janssen's statements, Robinson, the board's attorney, said he does not recall the superintendent expressing any skepticism about the circumstances under which Thomas created the product before the board meeting.

"If she had expressed the slightest doubt to me," he said, "we wouldn't be here."

He prepared the agenda item and had Thomas sign a document stating she created the program on her own time.

He said Janssen told him she was satisfied that Thomas had met the criteria for obtaining the copyright. This was important because, according to district policy, the final decision on whether materials were produced independent of an employee's job rests with the superintendent.

Robinson said he had no reason to doubt Thomas or Janssen.

"I do a lot of contracts," Robinson said. "I do not second-guess the underlying merits of every transaction. If I did, the agency would be crippled."

But Janssen says that, in this instance, she was relying on Robinson's expertise for a reason.

"Copyright has nothing to do with superintendency," she said, "and so I turned it over twice to the legal department."

Janssen says said she never thought she'd be in a position where she'd have to question the word of a longtime, trusted, high-ranking employee. "I guess I have to investigate," she said. "I have to ask around if she's lying. I mean, that's terrible."

Wikle, Clark, Williams, Krassner and Lerner all say the incident has weakened their confidence in Janssen.

"I think Dr. Janssen has many, many very good qualities," Lerner said. "But in this case, I think she was wrong."

Wikle said she's no longer confident that items brought to the board have been thoroughly vetted. Clark said she isn't sure what to believe. Williams said he's learned a lesson that "regardless of where the support comes that I need to probe further." And Krassner said she wants to know that the board is getting all the information it needs to make the right decision "from the get-go."

Lerner said she's still troubled Janssen ever thought to recommend the board give Thomas the copyright in the first place.

And on that matter, Janssen agrees.

"If I could do it again," she said Friday, "I would never have brought it to the board."

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

School chief's tipping point? 06/18/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 18, 2011 10:44pm]
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