Monticello School Board will seek separation agreement with superintendent

Monticello School Board members were in uncharted waters Monday when reviewing two key agenda items associated with Superintendent Jim Johnson’s departure.

Johnson announced in a letter to school district employees July 6 that he would be stepping down as the superintendent of the Monticello School District.

Last Friday, he confirmed the news to the Monticello Times.

Jim Johnson
Jim Johnson announced in a letter to school district employees July 6 that he would be stepping down as the superintendent of the Monticello School District. Monticello School Board members reviewed two key agenda items associated with Johnson’s departure at their Monday night meeting. (Photo Courtesy District 882)

Johnson has been the superintendent of the district for 12 years, and has worked in the district for 18 years.

He has accepted a position as associate professor at St. Cloud State University in the Department of Educational Administration. He starts on Aug. 15.

“The purpose of this letter is to inform you of my intent to retire from my position as superintendent of the Monticello School District effective at a date to be determined following discussion with the full board,” Johnson wrote.

The earliest effective date Johnson would leave the district would be the end of the day on Aug. 14 and latest date would be the end of the day on Aug. 31, his letter stated.

“I have been blessed to be an administrator in the district for over 18 years and would like to thank the current board and past board for their support,” Johnson stated in his letter.

He also thanked district staff members he had been honored to work with while serving students, parents, and residents of the community.

“This is new ground for this board,” said Board Chair Bill Spartz Monday night after reading Johnson’s retirement letter. “I’ve been able to get a little bit of experience with the Wright Technical group as they are searching for a superintendent as well, but at this point, tonight, I would take this time to thank you, Jim, for all of your years of service. I appreciate all you have done, but at this point we [the school board] need to move on.”

Spartz then said he had been in contact with the Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA).

“Their recommendation would be to recognize Jim’s resignation tonight, and move forward with a plan for separation,” Spartz said. “That would be my recommendation [to the board], and with that recommendation, I would ask the board to approve the ability for me to seek [legal] counsel to negotiate that separation as the board chair.”

Boardmember Robbie Smith asked Spartz if one motion was needed to accomplish that task.

Spartz hesitated, then replied, “Let’s recognize the resignation, and then we’ll ask for the second piece,” Spartz said, referring to a board course of action regarding accepting Johnson’s letter. “The second piece would be accepting the resignation. Do I have a motion to accept the resignation?”

Boardmember Carol McNaughton made the initial motion, using the word “resignation” not “retirement.” Boardmember Missy Hanson seconded McNaughton’s motion.

Johnson then asked Spartz for a point of clarification, before the rest of school board voted.

“Mr Chair, it’s a letter of retirement and not a letter of resignation,” Johnson said.

Spartz replied, “That’s something, Dr. Johnson, as we have looked at this in the short time that it has been available to us, we will address that in our separation agreement, understanding that is what you have provided us. I can tell you in all the contracts that I have done over the years, I think it’s best as a board and the district that we seek legal counsel as we move forward. This is not something we do every day.”

Spartz currently works as a labor relations specialist at the Minnesota Nurses Association. He also worked as a business representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers.

The school board voted unanimously 5-0 to accept McNaughton’s motion to accept a resignation from Johnson.

Boardmember Jill Bartlett was not in attendance Monday night. No effective date was mentioned by the board and there was no additional discussion.

The board then discussed the process for filling the superintendent’s position. Again, Spartz said he had been in contact with MSBA.

“We have several options,” he said. “We can look for an interim superintendent, we can research that avenue, we can post the position, we can look for an interim with the ability to hire for that spot, and not go beyond that. We could hire someone for a certain timeframe, and if they end up being the person that we select, we could just move forward. We could interview candidates, and if we don’t want to provide a full-time position, we could then offer it as an interim position.”

According to Spartz, the difficulty for the Monticello School District moving forward would be the ability to get candidates for the position who could escape provisions in their current contracts.

“Many of them can’t leave after July 15,” Spartz said. “That doesn’t mean that other school boards won’t let superintendents leave, but I don’t know if we would get the best candidates for the district.”

Spartz asked other board members for direction. Boardmember Jeff Hegle asked about looking for an interim position to fill the year.

“If you are looking for that, do we look for a retired superintendent, is that what we are talking about,” Hegle asked. Spartz replied, “I think that there are several superintendents that do that sort of thing. Sheldon Johnson from our district did that for a number of years.”

Hegle asked if there was a list of retired superintendents available. Spartz said he had not contacted MSBA about obtaining such a list.

“I still need to do that, and I’ll be doing that tomorrow [Tuesday, July 11], Spartz said.

Smith said the Monticello School Board would need to have several meetings regarding the superintendent replacement process.

“What is our obligation as far as open meeting laws and things like that?” Smith said.

Spartz said the search process would have to remain open and that the board could only close a meeting session if employee discipline was involved. “That’s also true for teacher negotiations and review of a superintendent,” Spartz said.

Hegle expressed his preference for finding an interim superintendent. “I don’t think we are going to be able to adequately do a search right now,” he said. “The other concern I have is the district has an assessment position that’s not filled. You throw a superintendent search onto that, and you’ll be doing two jobs at the start of the school year. It’s just too much. We should just try and find an interim superintendent who can step in and help coordinate that and help take care of the day-to-day operations and start a search in December.”

Spartz asked other board members for feedback. McNaughton and Hanson agreed the interim superintendent process was their preferred choice. “I don’t think we have a deep enough pool to look through,” McNaughton said.

Spartz also agreed that the interim process was the best route for the district.

“That will help us eventually get a length-of-term contract superintendent,” Spartz said. “I will reach out to the MSAB tomorrow and they will set up some dates to meet with us as a group to put together interview questions and interview some candidates as interim.”

Spartz then asked the board for the ability to seek legal counsel in order to negotiate a separation agreement with Johnson. Smith made the initial motion to that effect, with a second by Hegle. That motion also passed 5-0.

“There are a lot of things that are happening quickly,” Spartz told the Monticello Times Tuesday morning. “[The district] has a contract with Jim Johnson. As a [school] board, we have not been through this process, so we believe it’s our right and due diligence to get legal counsel to make sure we are doing things properly.”

Bruce Lombard, MSBA associate director of communications, said Tuesday his organization provides information, options and support for boards when a superintendent leaves a district. That process may vary based on a district’s specific needs. The school board must contact legal counsel.

Spartz added: “We appreciate Jim Johnson’s service to our district, and all of our administrators.”

Contact Tim Hennagir at [email protected]