Darrington schools irked by superintendent ruling

DARRINGTON — The school board is unhappy with a hearing officer’s decision last week that Larry Johnson was wrongfully fired from his job as superintendent of the Darrington School District.

In a statement released Friday, board members said Johnson’s successful appeal of his termination was especially disappointing “given that the hearing officer was troubled by Mr. Johnson’s credibility.”

Although he found reasons to question Johnson’s conduct, hearing officer Michael Cavanaugh decided the school district failed to establish sufficient cause to terminate the superintendent’s contract in February 2011. Cavanaugh also ordered the small school district to pay Johnson’s attorney fees, which are still being determined but are expected to be substantial.

“The board feels that credibility is of the utmost importance in the leader of the school district, or in any community leader, for that matter,” the statement read.

In October 2010, the school district’s finance director collapsed at Johnson’s home in Darrington. She died at an Everett hospital and it was determined her death was caused by a cocaine overdose. Sheriff’s investigators found no evidence of foul play or of a crime in the death.

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.

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 Johnson that it wasn’t renewing his employment contract past June of that year.

Johnson is challenging the nonrenewal decision in Snohomish County Superior Court.

The hearing officer ordered Johnson to be reinstated “if and when” the court determines that his contract was extended beyond June 2011.

Until that issue is resolved Johnson remains on administrative leave with pay, said school district lawyer John Casey, of the Curran Law Firm in Kent.

“We anticipate that the court will address the issue this summer at the earliest,” Casey said. “The school district will be filing to obtain a trial date in the near future.”

The school district’s investigation raised questions about Johnson’s “less than professional relationship” with Myra Lewis, which 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.”

Johnson, 60, last week said he hopes to return to work.

Johnson’s lawyer, Everett attorney Mitch Cogdill, said Johnson twice offered to settle with the district, but that an agreement could not be reached. The money spent to fight Johnson could reach a half-million dollars, Cogdill said.

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

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