The Palm Beach County School Board will seek a lawyer’s advice as to whether to sue ousted Superintendent Art Johnson for taking a new job representing the district’s principals.
“He’s violating the contract if he meets with any school board employees,” said Board Member Frank Barbieri, who led the charge as the board voted 4-3 Wednesday to hire an outside attorney. At issue is whether the district could sue Johnson for violating his separation agreement.
Negotiated in February 2011, the agreement allowed Johnson to leave without cause and receive more than $400,000 in severance benefits instead of being fired with cause and receive nothing. Parents for months had been calling for Johnson’s ouster, complaining about his focus on standardized test results.
Barbieri said the language in the separation agreement clearly states that Johnson can no longer have any contact with any other school district employee except the new superintendent. But the Palm Beach County School Administrators Association, which represents principals, hired Johnson to be its new executive director starting in May.
Barbieri argued this clearly violated the agreement because Johnson would have to meet with principals to do his job. He asked that the board send Johnson a warning letter and then seek a court injunction if he continued to meet with district employees.
School Board Member Jennifer Prior Brown argued that Johnson wields enormous influence and the point of the separation agreement was for the new superintendent to be able to move forward without his influence.
Retired Circuit Judge Kenneth Stern said Barbieri asked him to review the contract and to him the language clearly bars Johnson from contacting district employees, except the superintendent, forever. He said the district had grounds to sue both Johnson and the administrators association.
But General Counsel Sheryl Wood said if the scshool board tried to block Johnson from taking his new job, he would likely challenge it in court and try to argue that the no contact clause cannot be legally enforceable forever.
“A court will look at whether it is reasonable in scope and duration,” Wood said. “I’m just telling you practically this could be involved and it could cost you money.”
Wood also said she didn’t have the money in her budget for seeking an outside legal opinion or a protracted outside legal fight. That possible legal battle pricetag gave the board members who voted against exploring a suit, Mike Murgio and Karen Brill as well as Vice Chairwoman Debra Robinson, great pause.
“I have no interest, none, in paying any lawyers over this,” Robinson said.
Brill argued that spending money on lawyers did nothing to help children.
The board did not vote on hiring a specific lawyer, but Chairman Chuck Shaw recommended contacting a lawyer in Tallahassee. The board would still have to vote on whether to actually sue Johnson once receiving that outside legal opinion.