Board sends Nyssa superintendent on his way – with a year’s pay

NYSSA – Darren Johnson is out as superintendent of the Nyssa School District, agreeing Monday to take payment of $137,486 to leave under a deal struck with the Nyssa School Board.

The buyout immediately ends a troubled tenure for Johnson, who has been superintendent in Nyssa since 2018. The agreement said the board and Johnson had a “mutual interest” in ending the superintendent’s employment and that there was no admission of “any misconduct or unsatisfactory performance by Johnson.”

The board’s unanimous vote in a special meeting on Monday, July 17, came just days after Johnson said there would be no such deal and that he was staying on for one more year.

He had just started a new contract on July 1 that would pay him $137,486 a year for the next two years. He oversaw a district serving about 1,100 students with a $23 million budget.

Board members received the severance agreement just moments before voting. There was no discussion in the 11-minute meeting about what was behind the separation. The deal also requires the district to pay for Johnson’s health insurance for the next year at a cost not disclosed.

“I just want to tell everybody that I have worked really hard to do the right thing,” Johnson said in a brief statement to the board. He ticked off accomplishments during his tenure.

“I acknowledge the board’s decision-making authority. I respect that,” he said. “I will always be a fan of this school district.”

Board members voting for Johnson to go were Pat Morinaka, the chair, Susan Ramos, Jeremy Peterson, Maribel Ramirez, Donnie Ballou, Dustin Martisen and Megan Robbins.

READ IT: Nyssa superintendent agreement

The agreement comes just one week after the board met in executive session to consider Johnson’s employment. Johnson followed that meeting with a statement on Wednesday, July 12, that after discussing a separation agreement with the board since mid-June, he told the Enterprise he would be with the district through 2024. 

Board members didn’t respond to questions about the matter and Johnson wouldn’t comment beyond his short statement.

But Johnson’s indication he would stay one more year came in an environment in which school boards must give superintendents a one-year notice they are being terminated. The law was created in the wake of school board firings of superintendents who were heeding pandemic-era state regulations. Johnson and board members wouldn’t comment on whether the board considered termination.

“This allegation has caused a lot of stress, worry, and even anger that we would be accused of something so bad that someone would have to go to jail.”

–Darren Johnson, Nyssa School District superintendent

The school board met in executive, or closed, session Monday, July 3, under a law allowing the board to discuss in private the dismissal or disciplining of, or to hear complaints or charges brought against, a public officer or district employee. 

In his July 12 email, Johnson said he was not at the July 3 closed session and that the board discussed a complaint against him and the potential decisions surrounding it. 

State law explicitly allows a public body to meet privately in an executive session – where the public is barred, and reporters are instructed not to report on the proceedings – only in certain narrowly defined circumstances. The statute also clarifies that no final action or decision can be made during an executive session.

The Nyssa board also met in an executive session Monday, June 12. In a subsequent open session, the board directed the district’s attorney to discuss a separation agreement with Johnson’s attorney.

Draft agreements released to the Enterprise in response to a public records request showed that Johnson was presented in June with a deal that would pay him $20,0000 to end his Nyssa tenure.

Email records showed that Johnson instead sought a year’s salary and benefits plus an approximately extra $30,000 for work he said he had completed for Nyssa’s online school, My Tech High. The offer was presented by Johnson’s attorney, Nathan Reitmann with the Coalition of School Administrators.

District officials didn’t respond to written questions last week about that extra pay. In a Friday, July 14 email, Pat Morinaka, Nyssa board chair, didn’t address questions about the $30,000. She instead referred to board minutes from May 2022 showing that Johnson asked the board not to pay him for the My Tech work, but the status of that extra pay in the subsequent school year couldn’t be immediately established.

My Tech is an online school run by the Nyssa district.

The contract issues involving Johnson date back to April. In an April 14 email released to the Enterprise from the Nyssa board, Johnson wrote to Ramos that he was not happy with his contract which he signed April 10. According to Johnson, he didn’t realize the contract extended his service only two years, not three years.

“This doesn’t feel good to me,” Johnson wrote. “It feels like there is some plan for the board to move me along sooner than I would like. That may not be true, but that’s how it feels.” 

Johnson said since the board had voted on the contract, it was official for two years unless it reconsidered the three-year option, which he asked. It appears the board did not take up Johnson’s request during an open session. 

Johnson’s departure underscores a turbulent tenure marred by the Oregon Department of Education’s ongoing investigation of the district’s migrant education program. 

The two-year investigation of a program designed to help the children of migrant workers get an education revealed that 19 district staffers with nearly 60 children were improperly enrolled. Access to the program allowed the district employees to get government services they otherwise would not have received. In addition to the district employees’ improper enrollments, the Oregon Department of Education identified 129 families with 277 children improperly enrolled for the past three years. 

The state pulled $350,000 in federal funding from the program, and the district allocated $160,000 in legal costs for its upcoming budget after overspending its current legal budget by $60,000, paying out just over $75,000. 

Johnson touched on the migrant program controversy in his April note to Ramos.  

According to Johnson, during a visit the year before, an employee with the Department of Education discussing the migrant program said that, “people go to jail over stuff like this.” Johnson also blamed “disruptive” public records requests by the Enterprise for the community questioning the integrity of the Nyssa migrant program leaders. 

“This allegation has caused a lot of stress, worry, and even anger that we would be accused of something so bad that someone would have to go to jail,” Johnson wrote. 

Johnson also fared poorly in an annual performance evaluation by the board, according to records released to the Enterprise throughout his tenure, which began in 2018. 

The annual evaluation assessed Johnson on eight standards: visionary district leadership, ethics and professional norms, inclusive district culture, culturally responsive teacher leadership and improvement, communication and public relations, organizational management, financial management and policy, governance and advocacy. 

The board’s report pulled no punches over the migrant program scandal. 

The board wrote that the district had managed the migrant for 30 years, but the incoming budget had “skyrocketed.” 

“How did no one notice and question the reason over qualifying families? Look at the money and follow the trail,” the evaluation said.

Johnson, who declined the comment on the evaluation, in the past told the Enterprise that he could not oversee the district’s federally-funded work such as the migrant program and also attend to his superintendent duties. That’s why he added a new executive position to the budget to oversee such programs.

The board wrote that Johnson should have held Gabe Fuentes, the migrant program supervisor, accountable for his program’s financial management. They wrote that Fuentes didn’t seem to have a “firm financial grasp” of the program’s budget without help from Crystal Rideau, Nyssa district business manager. They asked that Fuentes be trained to have more “financial awareness.” 

Fuentes was named the high school’s basketball coach, according to June 12 regular meeting agenda. 

The board told Johnson in the report that the district needed to cut all unnecessary spending until the legal issues were resolved. However, the board recently adopted a 2023-2024 budget that included the new position and higher legal costs.

The board took Johnson to task over proposing to use federal funds for its special education fund to cover costs for the migrant program. 

“This is unlawful and should not have been an option presented,” the members wrote. 

The members questioned whether Johnson received three bids before hiring the Portland law firm Miller Nash in December. However, according to the board’s Dec. 12 meeting minutes, the members voted to sign on with the firm. 

Nonetheless, the board wrote that if the migrant program issues had been handled sooner, hiring attorneys might have been avoided.

The board told Johnson that he appeared to let bad behavior go on even though he may not participate.

“While there is no question about you or your ethics amongst the board,” they wrote. “There is concern that you quietly allow unethical things to happen under your watch.” 

Additionally, the board wrote that when he was unsure about a decision, he sometimes came across that perhaps he was hiding something.

However, the board wrote that he works hard to “protect the district” and was careful in telling the members when they were speaking “confidentially.” 

“We appreciate that,” they wrote. 

While the board saw that hiring procedures resulted in competent staff being hired during Johnson’s tenure, they wrote there were still nepotism concerns in the community. 

The board’s concerns about nepotism seemed moderate. 

“Although the board acknowledges that many jobs are all about who you know. This point may be unnecessary in your review,” the board wrote.

The board plans to meet Thursday, July 20, at 6 p.m. for a planning session. 

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