Art Johnson: the End of An Era

As the curtain came down, it was apparent that Superintendent Art Johnson was a victim of his own decisions. In the end, Art misread the politics of his situation, and misplayed his hand. Yet, even though not his first choice, he has reason to be content with the outcome.

 

As of early February, it should have been clear to Art that there were 5 votes against him remaining permanently. There was no way he could stay as the leader of the district. Yet, he persisted at the end to request to stay permanently, a serious negotiating mistake. Why? Because I believe there were four votes, albeit one of them shaky, to allow Art to stay on the job in a transition role until at least the end of the school year, perhaps longer. This would have allowed him a shot at preserving his legacy and to go out on a high note.

 

Art’s refusal to recognize the will of the board, and to understand he had no chance to remain under the terms of his current contract, angered some school board members, who would have supported him to stay in a transition role.

 

Several board members expected Art’s final position to be his acceptance of a negotiated settlement to leave, but also allowing him to stay at the helm during a transition period. I believe an up-and-down vote on that proposal would have been 4-3 in favor. That result would have been the most favorable for the school district.

 

Instead, before the final vote, Art changed his earlier position because district representatives proposed restrictions unacceptable to him during the negotiating period. When Art proposed at Wednesday’s meeting to stay on as the superintendent, and proposed a condition that allowed him 90 days to back out of the deal, he lost most of his support on the board for a transition role.

 

But there is plenty of blame to go around. These developments play out against the larger backdrop of whether Johnson, who steered the school district to the highest ratings in the state among urban districts over a six-year period, should have been forced to leave at all.

 

With Art out the door immediately, the school board will find that their job just became far more difficult, their chances for favorable outcomes diminished. The school board would have dealt far better with the problems they face, and will soon face, if they had someone with Art’s experience and relationships, good and bad, to run things during the transition. This is not to detract from Bill Malone who, by most accounts, is a good pulled-from-retirement choice as an interim superintendent.

 

But here is the terrible mess this school board faces, none of which was caused by Johnson:

•At least a $100 million deficit hole, possibly far more;

•A greedy union demanding more money at a time of economic distress;

•The need for huge spending cuts, including firing a lot of people, in order to balance the coming year’s budget;

•Proceeding without an experienced academic leader, and not demonstrating a united front, with the 2011 legislative session starting in 2 weeks;

•Preparing for class-size reduction requirements and FCAT exams.

 

Instead, the school board chose to chop its 10-year leader, rendering the district somewhat rudderless at a crucial moment. Knowing they could have fired Art at any time in the coming months if he misbehaved, they should have waited for the results of the audit they ordered. It would have been far smarter for the Board to keep an experienced hand at the operating tiller during this coming period of turmoil and hard times, while they searched for a permanent replacement.

John R. Smith

John R. Smith is chairman of BIZPAC, the Business Political Action Committee of Palm Beach County, and owner of a financial services company. He is a frequent columnist for BizPac Review.
John R. Smith

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