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Pinellas schools chief says giving people second chances has hurt her financially.
Published May 20, 2011

In her professional life, Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Julie Mastry Janssen has traveled a steadily upward path, rising from instructor to principal to head of one of the nation's largest school districts and Pinellas County's largest employer.

Janssen's personal life, though, has been a bumpy ride through a second marriage and a thicket of financial problems, including bankruptcy, delinquent taxes and, this year, the start of foreclosure proceedings.

They are the same problems facing millions of Americans. But for the 62-year-old Janssen they have the added impact of overshadowing a four-decade career.

"The biggest anxiety is to think that all I've done and all the progress we've made (in the district) becomes almost insignificant when I'm at the top of the fold of the newspaper,'' Janssen said in a sometimes emotional interview.

Her husband, Dennis,a lawyer whom she is divorcing, blames himself for the couple's financial straits. They are the result, he says, of two accidents that laid him up for months and a suspension from practicing law for violations of Florida Bar rules.

"I lost my income over several years,'' he says. "Whatever happened to me she had absolutely nothing to do with.''

But Janssen says she too has made "a lot of mistakes,'' among them focusing more on work than on the couple's finances.

She also attributes that inattention to the same trait that critics say has hurt her in her superintendent's role - a tendency to put blinders on when it comes to those who foul up, like a much-reviled teacher and a bullying administrator she wanted to keep on board.

"I think I'm criticized a lot because I give people chances,'' Janssen says. "My greatest flaw is loyalty.''

Wealthy, hard-working

Janssen says her forgiving attitude stems from growing up with seven brothers and sisters.

"In life, none of us is perfect,'' she says. "I care for other persons. I want to believe they're telling me the truth.''

She was born in Belize, where her father, Gene Mastry, ran family businesses that included cigarettes, logging and boat building. In 1961, he moved his clan to St. Petersburg, where he owned Mastry Marine and Industrial Co.

Though the Mastrys were wealthy, "we were taught that hard work is good,'' recalled Janssen. "We were raised to treat everyone with respect.''

Janssen returned to Belize in 1971 after marrying Robert Bruce Bowen, a childhood friend who came from one of that country's richest, most prominent families. She taught in a private school for eight years before the couple moved to St. Petersburg so their two sons would be closer to her parents.

With Bowen commuting to Belize, the marriage soon fell apart. "We're still good friends,'' she says, "but I couldn't live there and he couldn't live here.''

They divorced in 1983. Two years later she married Dennis Janssen, a former neighbor.

Janssen sold her house from her first marriage to her parents for $125,400. With her new husband, she took out a $190,000 mortgage on a larger waterfront home purchased from her parents in 1987. The same year, Dennis Janssen's ex-wife claimed he was $1,050 in arrears on support for their two children.

In early 1988, he sought to end alimony and reduce support payments, saying his income "decreased substantially'' after he left a law firm to start his own practice. But later that year, he and Julie Janssen, then an instructor at Lakewood High, bought a condo in Tallahassee, where Dennis Janssen had graduated from Florida State University.

By 1992, Julie Janssen was assistant principal at the Lakewood Center of Advanced Technologies. Her husband's career, though, came to a halt when the Florida Supreme Court suspended him for a year for violations including co-mingling funds.

In one case, the Bar said, Dennis Janssen borrowed $24,000 from a client to renovate his law office with no security for the loan. He repaid it with money borrowed from his father-in-law. The Bar also found that he had borrowed $26,000 from another client to buy a boat, and that his client trust fund had a shortage at one point of almost $40,000.

Though no clients lost money, the Bar said he had shown a "selfish motive" and a "pattern of misconduct.''

As his suspension neared its end, Dennis Janssen appeared before a Bar panel in 1993 to seek reinstatement. Asked if he had any pending arrests, the answer was "no'' - even though he had been arrested just a few hours earlier for DUI. (He later was convicted of reckless driving.)

The Bar noted other misrepresentations and omissions. Among them, it said, was his failure to disclose that he owed $14,200 in child support at the same time he had an income of nearly $300,000.

With the Bar balking at his reinstatement, Janssen spent the next three years in a variety of jobs, including sales rep for a company that sold brake-part distributorships. His annual income shrank to $13,672, records show, while his wife was making about $52,000 at Lakewood.

The couple separated. Julie Janssen moved into her mother's palatial, pink brick home on Boca Ciega Bay. Gene Mastry had died and his widow, Celma, a beloved figure in St. Petersburg social and charitable circles, was still coping with her loss.

"It worked out well because I was able to take care of Mom,'' Janssen says.

Debts pile up

Dennis Janssen resumed practicing law in 1996. But the couple were still living apart when they declared bankruptcy that year.

Their petition showed $37,860 in assets and $91,433 in debts, much of it on credit cards. They reported selling their home and condo in the previous year, netting $11,590 on the house and putting the money into an annuity beyond the reach of creditors, as allowed by law.

"Julie works like a dog,'' her husband says, "but she couldn't afford to keep us going on her salary after I got suspended.''

By 1999, with Julie Janssen now principal of Countryside High,the couple had reconciled and moved into a $264,000 house in Odessa purchased in her mother's name. It was about halfway to Leesburg, where Dennis Janssen had joined a law firm.

The next year, the couple spent Thanksgiving at her sister's home in rural Hardee County. Dennis Janssen was riding an all-terrain vehicle when it flipped over, injuring him so badly he was hospitalized for months and eventually lost a leg.

In 2001, just five years after bankruptcy, they bought a home on Boca Ciega Bay for $620,000,taking out $558,000 in mortgages in their own names. They bought back the Tallahassee condo for $53,000.

In 2002, they purchased a 40-foot, 1990 model Cruiser Esprit boat, large enough to sleep six people. Financing records don't show the price, but boats of the same make, model and year still sell today for $40,000 and up, according to yacht broker websites.

During the same period, the IRS hit the Janssens with a tax lien for $244,238. They were repeatedly late on property taxes for the Tallahassee condo.

Dennis Janssen blames himself. He says he thought the property taxes were included in the monthly mortgage payments. He says he couldn't pay his income taxes because he had spent $300,000 to buy out his law partner.

"I had to keep the practice, or pay the IRS and lose the practice. I did what I had to do," he said in a phone interview.

The couple refinanced their home in 2005 and paid off the IRS lien that year. Last month, Dennis Janssen paid the delinquent 2010 property taxes on their condo, where his wife has stayed several times to save the school system money while on official business in Tallahassee.

Julie Janssen acknowledges she should have kept a closer eye on their finances.

"I was careless, I didn't pay more attention. I was married to an attorney and that was his area. I was naive to a fault about things.''

Top job, more troubles

After Pinellas superintendent Clayton Wilcox resigned in 2008, two of the top candidates to replace him were Janssen, then interim superintendent, and Alberto Carvalho, an administrator in Miami-Dade schools.

In an unusual twist, both had bankruptcies in their past. But Janssen, with broad community support, was the one tapped to oversee a district with 103,000 students, 17,400 full-time employees and a $1.4 billion budget.

More troubles, though, loomed in her personal life.

While leaning over to catch a football thrown by a friend's 5-year-old grandson, Dennis Janssen fell off the second-floor balcony of the Tallahassee condo and broke his good leg. His income again took a hit as he spent weeks in a wheelchair.

About the same time, just as the real estate market started to collapse, the Janssens refinanced their house for $1.33 million. They embarked on a major remodeling that included a gourmet kitchen.

Though the renovations "started very minor in scope,'' she says, "the prices kept going up and there were a lot of unforeseen expenses, as anybody who's done a remodeling knows.''

Meanwhile, Dennis Janssen's personal injury practice was being battered, he says, by competition from huge law firms. By last August, the couple had defaulted on their house payments. In January, the bank started foreclosure.

'In complete control'?

Janssen says her personal problems have never interfered with her work. "I'm very blessed in that I have the strength to kind of shut it down,'' she says. "I come to work and it's all about work.''

School Board members generally agree that Janssen has been able to separate her public and personal lives.

"I personally have not seen any impact on the district because of Dr. Janssen's personal problems,'' member Janet Clark says.

But there have been concerns about some of Janssen's personnel decisions as the district struggles to cut $60 million from its budget.

In March, Janssen defended returning Maria Raysses-Whipple to a teaching job after years in a non-classroom position, even though dozens of parents had complained that she failed to return tests and papers in a timely manner, that she gave low grades with little or no explanation and that she made her students dread coming to class.

"You can't predict her behaviors haven't changed,'' Janssen said.

And last year, Janssen wanted to move administrator Janet Hernandez to another top job even though employees accused Hernandez of creating a "culture of fear'' as head of the district's professional development office. (Hernandez later resigned.)

"I see a culture in our district with Dr. Janssen's leadership that does look at second, third and fourth chances,'' says Robin Wikle, school board vice chairperson.

While that might be appropriate for kids, "I believe there's a big difference when these are adults that are in front of our children teaching them,'' Wikle says. "We have a commitment to our children to make sure they have competent adults around them.''

In an interview over coffee, Janssen teared up at times while talking about her husband's suspension, his accidents and the resulting problems. She also showed flashes of anger, saying "I don't know what I've done to deserve this'' scrutiny of her personal finances.

"If there was even a hint of my being unethical I could see that, but there isn't. It would be different if I was in complete control (of the district's budget), but I'm not. It would be different if I was in complete control of the accidents, but I'm not. But the result of those things ended up on my shoulders.

"I feel like I have absolutely no control over what's going to be said. It hurts the kids, it hurts the teachers, it hurts the organization and ultimately it hurts the city when the attention is on my personal life.''

But, Janssen added, she still hopes to serve out the remaining two and a half years of her contract, which now pays her $203,000 plus a $10,800 car allowance and a $3,000 communications allowance.

Last month, the Janssens got a contract on their home for a short sale, which would mean accepting a price less than what they owe. Though Julie Janssen filed for divorce in March, the couple are still sharing the house.

"We don't hate each other,'' says Dennis Janssen, 64, "We're trying to do the best we can financially with as much dignity as we can."

Why did they stay together for a quarter of a century?

"Maybe,'' Julie Janssen says, "I hadn't taken the time to see the big picture of what was happening in my life.''