By Eric Stevick and Noah Haglund Herald Writers
DARRINGTON — Larry Johnson was wrongfully fired after the death of an employee at this home in 2010 and he should be reinstated to his job as Darrington School District superintendent, a hearing examiner has ruled.
Although he found reasons to question Johnson’s conduct, the school district failed to establish sufficient cause to terminate the former superintendent’s contract in February 2011, hearing officer Michael Cavanaugh decided.
He outlined his findings in a 32-page decision released Sunday. He also ordered the district of about 500 students to pay Johnson’s attorney fees, which are still being determined.
“I never doubted we were going to win this,” Everett attorney Mitch Cogdill said Monday.
When and if Johnson will return to the job remains unresolved. Johnson maintains he has a contract through June 2013; the district argues that it told him the contract lapsed in 2011 although it has continued to pay him during the appeals process.
Johnson’s troubles began on Oct. 8, 2010, when Myra Lewis, 46, the school district’s finance director, died after a drug overdose at the home Johnson rented in Darrington. Tests showed she’d ingested cocaine. Sheriff’s investigators found no evidence of foul play or of a crime in Lewis’ death.
“The district clearly without any question acted to fire him because of the death of Myra Lewis, which there is no evidence that Larry was at all involved in and, in fact, the evidence is just to the contrary,” Cogdill said.
The school district’s investigation raised questions about Johnson’s management of Lewis and her work. Among other things, investigators found 118 text messages sent between Johnson and Lewis in the six days before her death.
A few messages sent from Lewis’s cell phone to Johnson were sexually explicit and others were openly flirtatious, the hearing officer wrote. Johnson denied a romantic relationship and said he didn’t recall the explicit messages from Lewis, but the hearing officer said his explanation of the texts was “less than fully satisfying.”
“Mr. Johnson’s less than entirely convincing explanation of the situation suggests to me that, for whatever reason, he has not been entirely forthcoming about the nature of his relationship with Ms. Lewis,” the hearing officer wrote.
The district argued the pair had “a less than professional relationship” that led to a lack of oversight and supervision and resulted in financial losses. The hearing officer found the district “failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that there was a loss to the district.”
The district also argued that Johnson failed to evaluate a principal, and that constituted a violation of board policy and state law. Johnson said he planned to finish the evaluation in the fall of 2010, as had been his practice the two previous years. The hearing examiner said he was convinced by the evidence that he would have done so.
The Darrington School Board, in a press release Monday, said it had just received word of the hearing officer’s decision and was reviewing it. The board plans to discuss its response at its regular Thursday night meeting.
“The district does not intend to make any statements other than this one prior to Thursday’s meeting,” the release said.
The release explains that the hearing officer’s decision to reinstate Johnson doesn’t automatically return the former superintendent to his old job. The school board in May 2011 told him that it wasn’t renewing his employment contract past June of that year.
Johnson is challenging the non-renewal decision in Snohomish County Superior Court. The hearing officer ordered Johnson to be reinstated “if and when” the court determines that his contract extended beyond June 2011.
Cavanaugh wrote that he can find nothing in the law that gives him authority to resolve the issue of the length of Johnson’s contract.
Johnson, 60, said Monday he hopes to return to work soon.
He described the hearing officer’s decision as “a feeling of vindication but not a lot of celebration.”
Johnson said it has been a difficult 17 months since Lewis died and he later lost his job.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” he said. “Sure you look back and say, ‘I could have done this differently.’”
Johnson said he and Lewis had “a good friendship and a great professional relationship” but that was all it was.
Cogdill said Johnson offered to settle the issue with the district on two separate occasions but they could not reach an agreement.
“Had they dealt with this on the front end, the money they could have saved would have approached a half a million dollars,” he said.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, email@example.com