After four and a half years at the helm of the 3,300 student Konocti school district, it looks like the end of superintendent Jim Johnson’s tenure is coming into view. Running the worst of Lake County’s school systems would not have been an easy task under the best of circumstances, but Johnson at times seemed to be intent on making the undertaking even more difficult than it had to be. Always at the bottom end of the county’s statistical heap, the Konocti district needed well directed and motivated teachers in order to have any chance at getting their abysmal test scores to improve. But instead of bringing his staff members together to form a focused and committed group of educators, Johnson managed to divide not only his employees, but also polarized the entire community as well.
To outside observers the first two years of Johnson’s run as superintendent were fairly tranquil, marred only by the continually slipping test scores and a Grand Jury investigation into an “”Energy conservation contract””. The Grand Jury found that the district had violated it’s own rules by handing out the conservation contract (for $1,136,858) without putting it out to competitive bid or posting any public notice of it, but couldn’t find any direct links to people working for the district who might
profit from it. But beyond those events, people inside the system knew that things weren’t right at the district office, and saw a disturbing pattern begin to develop. Superintendent Johnson wasn’t seeing the improvements in test scores he had hoped to been able to brag about, and started to become more adversarial in his dealings with some of his employees, whom he began to blame for the lack of positive results.
So now the course for the next two-plus years was set, with Johnson continually clamping down harder and harder on any dissenters or critics, while at the same time consolidating more and more power at the district office. The budget review committee and Leadership team (comprised of principals, parents and board members) were eliminated, and replaced with incredibly high-paid administrators who were completely on board with the Johnson way of thinking. Johnson was now in the full circle-the-wagons mode, and began doing a number of small-minded things like tinkering with the schedule and wording of the agenda of board meetings in order to make it more difficult for his detractors to figure out what was going on, let alone do anything about it. When the teachers of the high school began to question his methods, Johnson hired a junkyard dog of an assistant principal who spent most of time trying to find fault with his staff, rather than dealing with the multitude of student-related problems.
Things eventually came to a head at the high school when a popular teacher was suspended for three weeks because of a questionable film he had shown his students, and who’s forced vacation spawned a mini-revolt from students and staff members, which in turn forced Johnson to do some humiliating
Another target of Johnson’s campaign for total compliance was Pomo Elementary school’s long-time principal, April Leiferman, who got on the superintendent’s “”bad”” list in a big way. After butting heads with Johnson over a plan to scam his way around the state’s class size reduction regulations by creating “”phantom”” classes that existed only on paper, plus a number of other lesser disagreements, Leiferman began to pay the price. Leiferman’s eight-year-old son was enrolled in her school’s special education program, and had been working under the carefully crafted guidelines developed specifically for him. Johnson claimed the child needed more testing, and caused a good deal of interruption to his progress by putting him through more assessments and making other unnecessary disruptions to the child’s routine, apparently for no other reason other than to irritate his mother/principal. It got to the point where Leiferman sued the district for the obvious signs of retribution against her son, and
that’s when things began to get really nasty. Well over a year ago Johnson stopped speaking to Leiferman, and stepped up the pressure another notch by making a move that was probably the beginning of the end for him as district superintendent.
Over the summer, Johnson held a board meeting that was so secretive that two of the board members weren’t even notified of it, let alone the public.
Excluded from the event were board members Herb Gura and Bud Shipley, who had both become fed-up with the antics of their superintendent, and had made some noises about wanting him out. The purpose of the meeting was to reshuffle Lower Lake Elementary’s principal Greg Mucks to the Pomo school, while promoting Beth McClain to fill his vacant post. After twelve years running Pomo, Leiferman was being shipped off to run the absolute worst school in the county, infamous Eastlake Elementary. This was supposedly done because Leiferman had managed to make Pomo the most successful school in the district, though many saw it as a form of punishment, along with believing that it was an effort to break-up the cohesion and support of her incredibly dedicated staff. All this was done roughly a month before the new school year began, which meant that all kinds of last minute re-organizations had to take place in very short order in three of the district’s schools, and also meant that much of the planning that had been done in June and July had been wasted. But Leiferman never made it over to Eastlake, choosing instead to take a leave of absence. In another bazaar twist, Beth McLain turned out to be not only the wife of neighboring Kelseyville’s superintendent Boyce McClain, but apparently was also responsible for being a conduit of information to Johnson regarding the teacher’s union role in the dump Johnson effort being formed. To make matters worse, it turns out that the head of McClain’s hiring committee was an old friend of hers, who has consistently refused to let board member Herb Gura or anyone else see her background check. This incident is strikingly similar to how Johnson was hired, a scam which involved an old friend to do his vetting, which resulted in no signs of having his contract from the Klamath-Trinity district being bought-out for $115,000 appearing on his background check. Shortly after this reporter counseled Kelseyville’s superintendent to encourage his wife to take another position in the district, Boyce McClain stunned everyone by announcing that he was running for the Konocti school board, and said that my talk with him was what convinced him to do it. Howls of protest came from nearly all quarters, the loudest coming from his bosses on the Kelseyville’s school board, and after being in the race long enough to get on the ballot, McClain dropped out of the contest. The consensus around the county was that McClain’s bid for a
seat on the board was primarily driven by a desire to save his wife’s job, rather than to do something to genuinely help the district.
But the Leiferman episode wasn’t the only major abuse of his power Johnson had brought to bear on his detractors, as before that issue had fully developed, my own wife was drawn into the conflict. Fresh out of Dominican’s credentialing program, she had applied for one of four teaching jobs that were opening up at Pomo school due to retirements, and had a good shot at it due to her outstanding academic background and her extensive work in the district as a substitute teacher. The hiring committee selected her for a job teaching fourth grade, and her name was submitted to the board along with thirteen other new teachers to be hired in the district for the coming
year. But she never got the job, since in an unprecedented move Johnson pulled her name from the list, and made the lame excuse that the job actually had been moved to Eastlake. Of course that wasn’t really the case, and they ended up spending more time and money to bring in a teacher from San Francisco who had never worked a day in the district. Why would Johnson do something so counter-productive? According to two witnesses (former Eastlake principal Faye Wilson and another district employee), Jim Johnson said that “”Celeste Murphy will never work in this district because of that story her husband wrote””, a reference to an article that ran in the AVA back
in January. Fortunately Johnson’s attempt at revenge back-fired, since un-hiring Celeste allowed her to land a job teaching in the Lakeport school district, with a far better student body to instruct and much shorter commute. So much for Johnson’s crude attempt at using his taxpayer funded position to silence his critic’s in the news media.
Johnson has been largely silent when challenged to account for his actions, and on the rare occasions when his threesome of defenders on the Konocti board have allowed teachers or parents to voice their concerns at board meetings, Johnson won’t even look up from his paper work let alone respond to the complaints or questions. But on two occasions, Johnson has responded in the print media, the first being a piece that ran in the AVA earlier this year. In that story, Johnson made a claim that must have sounded familiar to teachers in the Anderson Valley and Klamath-Trinity school districts, that the main problem at Konocti was that many teachers were lazy and insubordinate. Johnson didn’t bother to respond to the numerous specific allegations against him, which was also the case when he wrote a guest editorial for the Clearlake Observer, which followed two other guest editorials that contained a laundry list of alleged mis-doings that had supposedly occurred due to the superintendent’s vindictive approach to management. In the Observer piece, Johnson claimed that one of the district’s biggest problems was the state of it’s finances, which made the nearly $14,000 a year pay raise he wrangled for himself last year seem even more out of place. A salary of $103,000-a-year plus a lush benefit package and 18 month buy-out clause for running a district that had deteriorated so badly under his control that the state was on the verge of taking charge of the high school and Eastlake Elementary seemed out of line to many in the district, and probably helped some voters decide who to back in the recent elections.
The campaign leading up to the election was probably the nastiest and most expensive race for school board seats that Lake County had ever seen, with one parents group throwing over $5,000 into the effort to unseat Johnson’s main source of support on the Konocti board. That incumbent, Janeane Bogner, had also spent some big bucks on her bid to continue her reign as leader of the Jim Johnson’s support group on the Konocti board. Bogner outspent her rivals by a huge margin, placing many large ads in the Observer and Record-Bee, along with slapping up an enormous amount of large and small campaign signs. Bogner also had the endorsements of many of Lake County’s political heavyweights of the Republican persuasion, including three county supervisors and several county planning commissioners. Bogner ducked out of
the only real debate held during the campaign, her only public appearance being limited to her participation at a church sponsored event that featured mainly religious-based questions posed by several clergymen from local churches, who were clearly part of the “”Save Bogner”” effort. But come election day, even all the money she spent and support from community leaders wasn’t enough to save her job, and Bogner ended up in fifth place in a six-person race for three slots on the board.
Successful in his bid for a third term on the Konocti board, Herb Gura was joined in the winner’s circle by two other parent and teacher groups-backed candidates, Anita Jordon and Caroline Jarrett. All three of the winners had made it clear that Johnson was likely to leave one way or another if they had any say in it, and since the election the superintendent has reportedly consistently been a no-show at his post in the district office. Also sensing a change in the direction of the new board was Johnson’s hand-picked $95,000-a-year assistant curriculum director Tad White, who was the same administrator who headed Beth McClain’s highly suspect hiring process, which
among other violations of protocol involved only McClain being interviewed for the principal’s job. White has already resigned, joining ex-Johnson henchman assistant high school principal Adam Colby in jumping ship in order to beat the move to toss him overboard.
Johnson is probably spending his time sending out resumes, and like he’s done several times before, will probably go on to ruin another school district somewhere else. That would fit the pattern set by other Lake County superintendents from the past, who have also managed to leave their mostly self-created disasters behind and start with a clean slate in a new local, sometimes being paid handsomely in order to encourage them to hit the road.
At this point, the main question seems to be if Johnson will have his contract bought out, or if he’ll resign, either way he’ll be leaving his small cadre of district employed lackeys and snitches behind to fend for themselves in the aftermath.