In voting unanimously to fire superintendent Julie Janssen at a special meeting Tuesday, the Pinellas County School Board acted with the decisiveness and clarity often lacking in the past. After months of melodrama, the board moved swiftly — without anger but with some sadness — to end the superintendent's rocky three-year tenure that had become a distraction for a district that should refocus on students and teachers as a new school year starts. Janssen's departure is not a cause for celebration, but it is the right decision and time for a fresh start for a school district with its share of challenges and a leadership vacuum.
The board recognized that while Janssen had students' best interests at heart, her stewardship was failing to lead the district toward success in the ever-challenging environment of today's large urban districts. The end came in a relatively short 90-minute meeting. Board member Robin Wikle, who has acquitted herself well as a mature, businesslike influence on the board, called for the superintendent to be fired without cause. There was no need to rehash questions that had been covered time and again.
Janssen will be paid a year's salary, which will be reduced by any wages she earns if she takes a new job in the next year. That is what her contract requires, and it was proper for the board to accept these terms. She dropped her effort to keep the entire severance if she starts another job, and board members smartly dropped any misguided effort to fire her for cause.
In voting to keep Janssen on until Sept. 2, the board acknowledged a trust and confidence that she can smooth the transition to an interim superintendent. On Tuesday, the board may be voting on a contract for interim superintendent with John Stewart, a former Polk County superintendent and No. 2 under former Pinellas superintendent Howard Hinesley.
The district needs an experienced, steady hand who will give the board enough time to conduct a thorough and expansive national search for a superintendent who can lead Pinellas schools into this new era of challenge — to close the achievement gap, to fight for more dollars for the classroom and to prepare students for college or careers. If it learns from its mistakes and continues to display some of the maturity that was on display Tuesday, the board may yet lead Pinellas schools toward that brighter future.
As for Janssen, she handled a difficult day with grace. She was joined by family members, and she correctly noted that superintendents in large urban districts typically stay in the high-pressure jobs only a few years. Her tenure coincided with the Great Recession that forced her to cut tens of millions of dollars in spending; demographic changes at schools that further underscored the achievement gap; and dramatic reforms at the state and federal level — all challenges most of her predecessors never experienced. Her roots in the community run deep, and while the Janssen era did not play out as her supporters envisioned three years ago, she helped ensure a dignified departure that spared the school district a messy fight. Now both she and the school district can part cleanly, and they can both look forward to a new chapter.