Pinellas school superintendent Julie Janssen has the unfortunate timing of leading the district as it struggles with too many low-performing schools, too little student discipline and too few tax dollars. The challenges demand strong, confident leadership. Yet Janssen has too often reacted timidly and uncertainly, and she has failed to be forthright with teachers, parents and the public.
Among the recent disappointments in her first 20 months:
• After a Pinellas Park High student was killed last year while crossing a busy street to catch a school bus, Janssen put more responsibility on parents to deliver their kids safely to bus stops than on the district to adjust an inherently dangerous busing scheme. She eventually formed a task force that produced little.
• After the Times reported in March on a huge number of arrests at John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg, she dismissed the situation as "overblown.'' The county's only middle school arts magnet deserves better. A new assistant principal arrived, the community responded and arrests are down.
• After three more high schools were placed under tougher state oversight for poor performance recently, Janssen downplayed the development. Of the district's possible responses in dealing with the principals and teachers, she chose the least aggressive. Having four high schools among the state's bottom 5 percent demands more urgency.
Candor and communication have not been Janssen's strong suits, either. Responses to requests for public records have been unacceptably slow. The superintendent was blindsided by the arrest numbers at John Hopkins, and School Board members were surprised the state will oversee more high schools. There is something wrong when information does not flow in either direction.
Janssen also was less than forthcoming last week during a detailed discussion with the Times' editorial board about a $26 million budget shortfall. She failed to mention that magnet teachers at Gibbs, Lakewood, St. Petersburg and Palm Harbor University high schools may no longer be paid a supplement — 14 percent of their base salaries — for academic coaching. She failed to mention she was imposing an immediate hiring freeze. Many teachers were caught by surprise when the news came out. This lack of candor hurts her credibility.
The superintendent works hard and says many of the right things. She acknowledges she should have known about John Hopkins' issues. A number of teachers will be replaced at the four low-performing high schools — Gibbs, Lakewood, Boca Ciega and Dixie Hollins. Reducing bus routes, furloughing employees and cutting health care costs are viable options to cut costs. She plans to streamline and overhaul the district's administration, one of the most bloated in the state.
"The bottom line,'' Janssen said, "is we have to do a better job.''
It can be a tough transition to the top job for a long-time employee of any big operation. But Janssen — a former Pinellas teacher, principal and administrator — has had time to adjust and her contract now runs through September 2013. The grace period is over. It's time to lead with confidence, boldness and a lot more clarity.