Board members accuse superintendent of ‘manipulating’ Missouri school district as finances implode

(The Lion) — Two school board members spoke out against the reinstatement of a superintendent in Missouri, accusing the administrator of multiple acts of bad faith as the district’s financial condition deteriorates.

Recent financial data for the Hannibal School District, which was leaked to a local news outlet, shows a district at odds with itself even as it faces serious financial peril.

Yet, despite the long laundry list of serious allegations by the board members against Superintendent Susan Johnson, the board voted to renew her contract for one year.

The reinstatement was made necessary after her board-chosen successor, Roy Webb, abruptly resigned, citing “inaccurate” financial records by the district, which he said had been incorrectly kept for years, according to the his resignation letter. Webb was slated to take over for Johnson, who planned to retire in June.

Webb’s letter, obtained by Muddy River News, warned ominously that the district will require a lot of legal experience, which he doesn’t possess.

“Unfortunately, (the district) may need someone with much more Missouri law and school finance knowledge than I possess. … You are now facing serious financial needs, a significant deficit this year and the risk of running out of funds,” wrote Webb, who had been announced as the new Hannibal superintendent in January.

Webb said he was also concerned that board discussions, which happened in executive session, contained “misinformation and rumor,” as it was relayed to him privately.

Executive sessions are supposed to be privileged conversations among board members, not available to the public or staff members. But board member Dr. Jeff Evans criticized Johnson during an April 17 board meeting for leaking those private conversations to her would-be successor Webb, as well as denigrating the board to Webb, which may have led to Webb’s quick departure from the district.

“The disrespect, attempts to undermine the board, disregard its directives, manipulate its activities and personal attacks from an administrator to governing board members is unprecedented in my experience,” said Evans, who also said he has worked with various boards over his medical career.

Evans also said Johnson inaccurately claimed someone from the board leaked the Webb resignation letter with the damaging information about the condition of the district and Johnson’s complicity in the financial mess. Johnson implied it was Evans himself who leaked the letter, a claim which Muddy River News denied to Johnson personally, said Evans.

“Because Mrs. Johnson has been building this toxic dynamic in our district a lot longer than a year and her efforts are escalating, I can no longer support her continued employment in the Hannibal School District,” Evans added.

Board member Scott Hawes also voted against the reinstatement of Johnson.

Yet, Johnson was reinstated by a 5-2 vote.

Still, the extension of Johnson’s contract likely won’t calm things in Hannibal. Webb’s letter described the district’s atmosphere under Johnson’s leadership as “chaotic,” and he concluded he didn’t want to be “part of this type of climate.”

Sources told The Lion that although the board typically discusses serious allegations about employees and potentially renewing contracts in executive session because of privacy laws, Johnson waived the privacy concerns after first stacking the board meeting with supporters cultivated over a 33-year career in Hannibal.

The financial condition of the district is reported to be especially “chaotic.”

Muddy River News reported a district budget deficit was first disclosed publicly in the Webb resignation letter. But an analysis by The Lion of the school district’s current $3.3 million deficit shows that to some extent the deficit was self-imposed, and mostly foreseeable, because of mismanagement of the budget by Johnson and the board.

Materials provided by the district reveal COVID-19 money provided by the federal government “served as a temporary revenue holder to keep up with a growing budget. Now, COVID money is gone and this shows a hole in the revenue needs.”

The budget “hole” was created in large part due to a 27% increase in district salaries and benefits while student enrollment was declining, according to the materials provided by the district.

In 2019-20, salaries and benefits came in at $30,174,272. By the 2023-24-budgeted school year, salaries and benefits grew to $38,143,949, an increase of nearly $8 million.

The district claims assessed valuations have also negatively impacted the budget by not growing more rapidly, but school finance data provided by the state shows assessed valuations have risen nearly 8.5% year-over-year, over twice the 2023 U.S. inflation rate of 4.1%.

The state also shows per-pupil spending has increased in the district from $10,486 in 2021 to $12,566, a nearly 20% increase.

Evans said in the meeting that the financial mess resides with Johnson, who has limited financial experience and has hidden data from the public, in part because she won’t admit she’s unqualified.

“She didn’t know what she didn’t know,” Evans said of the deficit.

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