Is schools chief Art Johnson orchestrating a plan to keep his job?

School board scheduled to vote Wednesday

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla - Does Superintendent Art Johnson plan to leave the Palm Beach County School District with his head high or is he orchestrating a plan to try to keep his job? That's what parents, teachers and school board members want to know after a series of 11th hour declarations of support for Johnson.

The school board is scheduled to vote Wednesday to either accept a settlement to buy out Johnson's contract or fire him. As they make their decision, they'll have plenty of input to consider.

Since board Chairman Frank Barbieri revealed last week that he'd been secretly discussing a split with a representative for Johnson, members of the business community have lobbied board members to keep Johnson on the job - even if he stays only for a few months while the board finds a replacement.

Then on Monday, the district's principals held an emergency meeting and voted overwhelmingly to support Johnson. Now principals plan to come to tonight's meeting en masse in a show of support.

"A week ago it seemed he was on his way out; it was a done deal," said John Donohue, a Pine Jog Elementary parent who added that Johnson has burned too many bridges to remain superintendent. "All of a sudden there's movement to retain him."

Donohue said he believes that if Johnson truly wanted to move on, he would have spoken up and quashed the efforts to keep him.

Johnson could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

School board member Debra Robinson also sees Johnson's influence - if not his fingerprints - on the principals' vote.

"It's consistent with his past M.O., when he would have principals come to the board meetings in order to express their love and admiration for him," Robinson said.

Other school board members said they too are suspicious of or even annoyed by the last-minute lobbying efforts but would not speak publicly about it.

In previous years, Johnson invited principals to speak during his annual evaluation before board members asked him to stop, Robinson said. He also hand-picked principals last school year to counter protests by parents and teachers opposing the one-size-fits-all academic program run by former Chief Academic Officer Jeffrey Hernandez.

"We had no idea" that Monday's meeting would end in a vote, said Seminole Ridge High School Principal Lynne McGee, one of the leaders of the principals' group. But, just in case, leaders came prepared with printed ballots.

Asked if Johnson had any part in calling the meeting, McGee said: "Oh heavens no; he didn't even know about it."

McGee did not have a final vote count Tuesday but said the support was overwhelming. The association was still accepting votes from principals who could not attend Monday's meeting.

It's not surprising that principals want Johnson to stay on the job. They call him a principal's superintendent and recognize that he offered them unusual autonomy in running their schools in the past decade - except during the brief Hernandez reign. As a group, they've forgiven Johnson for what they consider a momentary lapse.

The notion that principals could stage a vote without Johnson knowing is delusion, said Andre Fla­dell, a Johnson supporter. But that makes the effort no less heartfelt, he said.

"Art has always seen the principals as the strength of the army," Fladell said.

Having their vote of confidence also solves a problem for Johnson, who has clashed with the new school board about sharing power.

"I think it's very satisfying to Dr J. and I think it's a statement that the people who run this system appreciate his achievement," Fladell said. "Art wants this as an achievement issue. He doesn't want this as a personality issue. To some extent, the principals solve that."

Still, Johnson's critics seem skeptical of the principals' vote.

"The flying monkeys tried to keep that bucket of water off of their boss, too," wrote one Facebook commenter, in a reference to the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz, on the Testing is Not Teaching page.

Teachers union President Robert Dow said board members will see through the principals' vote.

"I think it will be patently obvious that those people whose jobs depend on Art Johnson being in that position support Art Johnson," he said.

Dow is calling on his members to pack the board meeting. Last spring, 95 percent of teachers voted that they had no confidence in Johnson.

If the sudden support for Johnson is a tactic and rather than a genuine outpouring, it could backfire.

"If he is not truly negotiating to find some terms that both sides can agree to for his separation, then the motion remains on the table and the motion was to terminate him immediately," Robinson said.

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