Board members express surprise as Nyssa superintendent creates new fed programs post

NYSSA – The Nyssa School District superintendent’s plans to shuffle district leadership and create a costly new administrative position caught school board members off guard.

Superintendent Darren Johnson told Nyssa School Board members at their meeting Monday, May 8, that the staffing shift is intended to help the district recover from a disruptive investigation of the district’s migrant education program. 

The board is considering a new budget that shows a dramatic increase in legal costs. The current budget had the district at $15,000. In the upcoming budget, the district proposes to up it to $160,000. According to the board’s meeting minutes from Monday, Dec. 12, the board hired the Portland law firm, Miller Nash. 

By the end of March, the district had overspent its legal budget by $60,000, paying out just over $75,000, according to Crystal Rideau, Nyssa’s business manager. 

During the Monday board work session, board member Pat Morinaka questioned Johnson about his management shift and why the creation of the new federal programs director did not come to the board for discussion. 

Johnson defended the decision and said the board’s Feb. 13 approval to assign Ryan Hawkins, Nyssa assistant superintendent, as Nyssa’s online principal allowed him to move Matt Murray, Nyssa Elementary School principal, to the federal programs director position. Murray is slated to start the new job at the end of the school year at $169,257 per year.

Johnson told the board that he was not trying to be “tricky” and that he thought he communicated his intentions to the board.

But records obtained by the Enterprise show Johnson intended to keep the plan from school board members. 

Johnson, in a Feb. 9 email, wrote to Jennifer Patterson, assistant superintendent of the Office of Teaching and Learning with the Oregon Department of Education, about the state’s consideration of transferring management of the migrant education program to the Malheur County Education Service District. He advised the state official then that he intended to hire a “detail-oriented” principal within the district for the new federal programs director role. 

“I haven’t carried out all my plans yet –want to get your thoughts first,” Johnson wrote. “I haven’t even let my school board know yet, so while I’m not opposed to others at ODE knowing, I don’t want it getting out yet.” 

Patterson, who initially offered to discuss Johnson’s idea of creating the new position in a meeting, emailed Johnson on Feb. 15 that she could not counsel Johnson on local staffing decisions. She suggested he contact the other school superintendents, including Vale and Adrian. 

Mark Redmond, education service district superintendent, said Tuesday, May 9, that he had not recently communicated with the state about his office taking on the management of the migrant program.

In a Wednesday, May 10 email, Johnson said he told Patterson it was “obvious” the district needed to make changes because the grants require meetings, training sessions and much of his time and often conflict with his duties as a superintendent. 

Johnson said that with all of the federal requirements, the district needed to designate one person to ensure Nyssa complies with the programs. 

Johnson declined to comment on questions about keeping his intentions from the public. 

Morinaka told Johnson she was concerned Murray did not have the background to oversee the program given that the problems with the migrant program have a lengthy, complex history. 

She said it would be better to leave the management of the program to Johnson. 

Johnson said he was not attempting to “wash his hands” of the program and would continue to oversee the program. However, he told the board that Murray’s presence would help mend the strained relationships between Nyssa and the other two participating districts, Vale and Adrian. 

The new costs for the administrative position come as the district works to keep its schools operating without laying off employees. In his April 26 budget message, Johson wrote that income from the district’s online school operation would cover an expected $160,000 drop in federal funding.  

Nonetheless, the district’s proposed budget shows the number of district positions increased from 139 to 146. The increase has board members concerned. 

Board member Megan Robbins asked Johnson and Hawkins during the Monday work session if the district could combine duties among the administrators within the district. 

Johnson said consolidating positions is an avenue he and Hawkins could research. 

Board member Jeremy Peterson said when the board considered starting the online school, the plan was to use that funding for facilities and maintenance costs. However, he said now the board is pulling money from that fund to cover other expenses. Peterson said he was not saying the district should make any changes right away but rather should be thinking long-term. 

“I like to look down the road,” Peterson said. 

Overall, Nyssa proposes increasing its general fund budget by nearly $4 million to nearly $24 million.

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