Pinellas County school superintendent Julie Janssen has lost the confidence of School Board members and some of the county's most passionate advocates for public education. It is time to begin a discussion about whether she can win back their support through better communication, clearer direction and stronger leadership.
At least four of seven School Board members are expected this week to agree to discuss Janssen's leadership. It is instructive that among those four are Linda Lerner, one of Janssen's reliable supporters and the longest-serving member, and Terry Krassner and Robin Wikle, who were not on the board when Janssen was hired in 2008. That suggests that Janssen's reservoir of support that was so deep and wide when she became superintendent has largely run dry. School Board members should be clear about what it would take to correct the situation.
The latest frustration was triggered by Janssen's fumbling on the future of struggling Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg. She abruptly postponed restructuring the school in partnership with the University of Florida and initially said she did not need approval from the School Board. That irritated some School Board members, and the board's attorney has concluded Janssen would need board approval on the Melrose partnership with UF. This should not be that hard, and it speaks to broader concerns about Janssen's performance.
A former Pinellas teacher, principal and administrator, Janssen was chosen from a field that included weak outside candidates. Her family ties to the community are strong, and she began with widespread support that included the St. Petersburg Times editorial board. But with her third school year now complete, Janssen has failed to grow into the job and continues to struggle to set a clear path for success for a school system that has lost much of its luster.
While her commitment to education and children is unquestioned, Janssen has failed to react well in crises ranging from a child killed crossing a busy street to catch a school bus to large numbers of arrests at John Hopkins Middle School to failing high schools. She has struggled to sell her long-range plans to improve school curriculum and narrow the achievement gap. Her managerial skills also are lacking. The painful cost-cutting could be more precise; the administration remains bloated despite some progress; and her leadership team remains weak.
To be sure, Janssen faces formidable challenges: an economic recession that forces deep spending cuts, a shrinking student population coupled with changing demographics, and a School Board that too often micromanages, rejects politically tough budget cuts and lacks direction. But there should be high performance standards and accountability throughout the school system, including in the superintendent's office.
Instead of acknowledging the district's issues and accepting constructive criticism, Janssen has become defensive. She should embrace high expectations rather than resist them and correct her weaknesses instead of denying them. A frank public conversation with the School Board ought to bring some clarity to a situation that is not sustainable as it stands.