Pinellas County School Board members showed promising signs of toughness and candor Thursday when they told superintendent Julie Janssen she had two months to become a much better leader. Having laid out specific performance goals during a 41/2-hour workshop, the board now must keep the courage of those convictions. There should be no more second chances after August.
The time for half measures is past. A little improvement, with hopes for more down the road, should not pass the board's test. But if Janssen, finishing her third year as superintendent, does transform her decision-making and communications skills in such a short time, the board owes her the chance to work as a strong superintendent without micromanaging by elected officials.
During Thursday's workshop, board members admitted that discussions are often too polite when they should be pointed. Asking questions with rigor isn't being rude. It's being faithful to the trust that voters place in elected officials to make the best choices for Pinellas students and schools. Board member Robin Wikle understood that, gently but firmly guiding the discussion back to the pointed issues at hand time and again.
Pretending things are fine when they are not serves no one. The board acknowledged as much on Thursday. During the next several weeks, board members must steel themselves to that reality to be sure they are assessing the superintendent as the leader she is, not the leader they wish her to be.
The board's expectations are light on tasks — simply finish the district's strategic plan — but heavy on leadership skills. The board expects the superintendent to take more responsibility and accept more blame when things go wrong on her watch. They want her to improve her time management and organizational skills as well as crisis management. Board members want her to communicate better, to follow up, to pay more attention to detail. They want her to be receptive when subordinates have bad news to share. And when board members ask for information, they want to receive it promptly.
With major issues facing Pinellas schools, from budget cuts to achievement gaps, the district needs farsighted leaders who have the strength and vision to take charge of the school system and mold it. The Pinellas superintendent is one of the most important jobs in the county, and as the hiring and firing managers, board members must never forget the public trust that they hold.
This is the question the board members must ask themselves over the next several weeks: Is Janssen capable of moving the district forward?
As the summer progresses, the board must not retreat from the guidelines it has set to evaluate Janssen. The worst result would be for the board to note minor improvements in the superintendent's performance in two months, hope for more, and let the situation fester. There needs to be a resolution.