The Pinellas School Board will make an important decision about the district's future Wednesday when it names a new superintendent. While there are three solid finalists, the best choice to meet the challenges ahead is the person who's already been doing the job for several months as the interim: Julie Janssen.
When the board looked outside Florida to hire Clayton Wilcox in 2004, it was time for a fresh face. Wilcox brought new energy and ideas before resigning earlier this year after less than four years on the job, and he shook up a school district that had become entirely too complacent. The push for change should continue, but now is not the time to completely change directions.
The board has narrowed the field to three worthy finalists: Alberto M. Carvalho, associate superintendent of Miami-Dade schools; Nicholas M. Gledich, chief operations officer for Orange County schools; and Janssen.
Carvalho brought energy and intensity to his interview with the board and appears to be a quick study, but now the district needs a familiar, steady hand who knows it from the inside. It needs a leader with ties to the community and wide public support to address the most pressing issues.
Janssen, 59, fits that description. She already has some on-the-job training and has learned from her mistakes, such as too quickly embracing a sweeping proposal to decentralize decison-making and hand far greater responsibilities to school principals who may not be prepared for it. She is building a good team, and she has the trust of teachers and principals. After all, she has been there herself.
Before schools were desegregated, she started her career at Perkins Elementary, which later became an arts magnet and remains one of the county's best hopes for voluntary integration. She directed the highly regarded Center for Advanced Technologies at Lakewood High. She sat for years on the District Monitoring and Advisory Committee — educators and community leaders who advise the board on issues related to black students. And before moving into central administration, she was principal at St. Petersburg High.
The poor graduation rate, the achievement gap between African-American students and other students, the resegregation of schools as the district embraces close-to-home schools and the continuing budget shortfalls are only a few of the substantial challenges the new superintendent will face. A knowledge of the county and strong community ties are essential to successfully meeting them.
Among the three candidates, Janssen has the least experience in district level administration. But she offers steady leadership, and she is best positioned to rally a community that must be involved for students to get the quality education they deserve.