Art Johnson is scheduled to start work today representing Palm Beach County school principals. And according to a legal opinion prepared for the school district, the school board can’t stop its former superintendent — who left office amid controversy in February 2011 — from taking the job.
“The plain language in Section 7 of the Agreement … does not support the conclusion that Dr. Johnson is permanently banned from representing Association members,” Tallahassee attorney Robert Sniffen wrote to school board members this week.
The Palm Beach County School Administrators Association, which represents principals and assistant principals at 185 schools, in March hired Johnson to replace the retiring Ben Marlin as its executive director.
Among other duties, Johnson is expected to attend school board meetings and meet with board members. That means that by the next scheduled meeting May 29, he could be meeting with many of those who voted to oust him.
Johnson, as well as association president Maureen Werner, could not be reached for comment Monday.
Johnson, the district’s superintendent for nearly 10 years, was dismissed in a 6-1 board vote. He had become the subject of protests from parents who perceived an emphasis on standardized testing.
School board members Jennifer Prior Brown and Frank Barbieri expressed dismay last month at Johnson’s hire because of a separation agreement negotiated with him before his departure.
Barbieri, who negotiated the agreement, said it contained a clause permanently banning Johnson from ever discussing district business with any employee except the superintendent again. Because Johnson could not do his new job without meeting with principals, he could not take the job without violating the separation agreement, Barbieri said. The board decided to seek a legal opinion from Sniffen.
The district has not released his May 20 letter because it was prepared in anticipation of possible litigation. But according to a copy obtained by The Palm Beach Post, Sniffen advises the board that “a perpetual ban is not supported by Florida’s restrictive covenant statute, and such a ban has the unintended possibility of offending constitutional principles and provisions of Florida law.”
Sniffen’s legal opinion is not binding and the school board could still vote to sue Johnson. The May 29 agenda had not been released as of Monday, and Chairman Chuck Shaw could not be reached for comment about whether a vote would be scheduled.
Asked Monday about Johnson’s impending start in his new job, Barbieri said his only goal was educating children and the district has other major issues with which it must deal.
“I won’t divert my attention to this petty topic injected only for use as a political wedge,” Barbieri said.