The most recent example of this came this week with the forced resignation of Executive Director of Student Services Mark Barlass. As the Turner Report noted Friday, Barlass received more than six thousand dollars in vacation pay, will have the district pay for his health insurance through the end of the calendar year, and will receive a neutral reference from the district when it is called by prospective employers. The district will also not challenge any attempt by Barlass to receive unemployment insurance.
When the job performances of Curriculum Director Sarah Stevens and East Middle School Principal Bud Sexson were considered to be so problematic that they had to be removed from their positions with more than a semester left in the school year, they were given busy work to do for several months, while collecting their full salaries and benefits. I am sure they, too, will receive at least a neutral reference.
The crown jewel of separation agreements, of course, was provided to former Superintendent C. J. Huff.
Huff, who "retired" June 30, 2015, is still receiving his full $175,000 annual salary through December 31 of this year, 18 months after his "retirement" date, giving him $260,000 for not doing anything for the taxpayers. He also received a $50,000 consulting fee, which R-8 officials acknowledged was strictly for helping the district with the lawsuits that came about as a result of his incompetence and the incompetence of the people he hired and promoted to positions far beyond their skill levels.
The most grating part of Huff's deal is that he was able to write his own glowing letter of reference, as I revealed in the June 1, 2015 Turner Report. The letter even included a reference to Joplin as an "unengaged, apathetic community," until Huff came along and rescued us and enlightened us. The letter also referred to the "personal sacrifices" Huff had made.
In essence, Huff wrote his own letter of recommendation and the board signed off on it to prevent him from continuing to inflict his own brand of narcissistic excess on the district.
The letter reads as follows:
To whom it may concern,
I am honored to have this opportunity to write this letter of recommendation on behalf of the Joplin Schools Board of Education for Dr. C. J. Huff. I have known Dr. Huff since his arrival in Joplin in July of 2008.
When Dr. Huff was hired as the superintendent of schools by the Board of Education, he was hired to tackle several challenges the District had yet to overcome. The primary issues included an unacceptable graduation rate that hovered between 72 and 75 percent and an unengaged, apathetic community that was not intimately involved in the life of our schools. Within a few short years, Dr. Huff successfully tackled both challenges through the development of a comprehensive dropout prevention program resulting in graduates rates exceeding 86 percent, as well as a nationally recognized community engagement framework known as Bright Futures that has been replicated by 35 communities in seven states across the country.
Unfortunately on May 22, 2011, Dr. Huff was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight as a part of the recovery effort following the most costly tornado in our nation's history. On that day, Joplin Schools lost seven students, one staff member, and six school buildings. Four other school buildings sustained damage. Over the course of 87 days, Dr. Huff led his team and the community through an amazing recovery effort resulting in the scheduled opening of school on August 17, 2011.
Through that incredibly challenging time, his focus on what was best for our children, our families, our teachers, and our community did not waiver (sic). His commitment to the rebuilding effort and the personal sacrifices he has made to see our school community through this unimaginable disaster has resulted in state of the art school facilities for our children, but more importantly, 21st Century academic programming that has been recognized as a model of innovation for the state and national level, as well.
It is without hesitation Joplin Schools Board of Education recommends Dr. C. J. Huff for a position in your organization. He has consistently demonstrated he is a capable leader and a man of commitment, character, and integrity.
As I noted at the beginning of this post, I resent the deals these people who have damaged the district and whose negative influence will be felt for years to come have brokered with the board of education.
As others who have commented on the Turner Report, both following the Huff "retirement" and the Barlass resignation have noted, these people have been given far more consideration than they showed to the hundreds of people they ushered out of the school system.
C. J. Huff and the people who worked for him took delight in continuing to cause problems for employees and former employees. Over the past three and a half years I have come across one story after another of the Huff team going out of its way to harass former employees, some of whom left on their own, by calling prospective employers and warning them about the job applicants.
While they worked in what essentially was a country club atmosphere for most of the seven years of Huff's tenure, traveling the country on the taxpayer dime and using district credit cards like their own personal possessions, they spent a considerable amount of their time targeting people,who dared to criticize, and in some cases, even to ask questions, about actions they had taken.
The most egregious example was the McKinley Massacre, where a veteran teacher, attempting to improve the atmosphere at her school, took a group of non-tenured teachers to Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorfer looking for a solution to problems with the principal.
Besendorfer assured them their concerns would be addressed and they certainly were. None of the teachers' contracts were renewed and the veteran teacher barely held on to her job, but was forced to transfer to another school. Perhaps the only thing that saved her job was that the district was already going through a messy situation involving another tenured teacher and did not want to have a second termination hearing.
I was that other tenured teacher.
By the time the McKinley situation was finished, only a handful of teachers were left in the building who had been there the previous year.
The principal whose actions had caused all of the problems, Jennifer Doshier, a pet of the Huff-Besendorfer Administration, was rewarded with a job in upper administration as executive director of elementary education. Today, she is the director of curriculum, teaching, and assessment for the district.
For her replacement, the district transferred curriculum director Terri Hart, who made no secret of needing to have a principal's job to use as a steppingstone to future employment as a superintendent. The only problem- she was not qualified to be a principal.
Hart did not receive her principal certification until December 2013, when she had already been on the job for months.
Hart resigned that position in February 2016, another case of the current board excising some of the
cancer that Huff and Besendorfer inflicted upon R-8 taxpayers.
Whether Hart received some kind of sweetheart deal in order to hasten her departure, I do not know. All I know is that all of these people, even those who left in public disgrace, like Huff and Barlass, received far more consideration than I did and for that, I am resentful.
In June 2013, I was fired following a 10-hour termination hearing.
I dislike having to go through the entire case again, but it is necessary to provide some background to show why, though I am angered by these deals with Huff, Barlass, and others, I completely support the current Board of Education in making those deals.
This is what happened to me and what has happened since my firing:
-On April 8, 2013, I was removed from my classroom and escorted out of East Middle School, where I was an English teacher, by a police officer, in front of my students and fellow teachers just as the final bell had rung for the day. This took place following a four-and-a-half-minute "interrogation," which I recorded.
-On the advice of NEA, I was fully prepared to resign and was actively seeking jobs with other area school districts. Two of those districts had already checked my references and had received positive recommendations from former administrators who had worked with me.
-The Huff Administration leaked confidential information from their "investigation" and from my personal file to the Joplin Globe, which allowed the Globe to write about my book No Child Left Alive in its article about my situation. There was no other reason for the newspaper to write about the book or what it referred to as its graphic sexual content. After that article, any chance of me being hired by the area school districts was gone and I was forced to go through a public hearing.
-The first charges against me were that I assigned my book to my students on my website Room 210 Discussion, a website that had not been used for school purposes for three years and one that I had never told my students about. I was also accused of using student work for my own profit with the March 2013 publication of Scars from the Tornado. Against my attorney's advice, I refuted those charges on the Turner Report, including posting a YouTube video featuring the audio content of my secretly recorded interrogation.I also posted photos of the parental permission slips I had received for Scars.
-The district filed different allegations against me, saying I did not receive permission for publishing Scars, that I had exposed my students to No Child Left Alive, primarily by promoting it on all of my websites, including Room 210 Discussion, and I had also exposed them to another book they termed pornographic Devil's Messenger, a book that is decidedly not pornographic (neither is No Child Left Alive) and at that point had been on the shelves at the East Middle School and Joplin High School libraries for seven years with no complaints.
-During her investigation, though there were never any allegations of me doing anything improper with students, HR Director Tina Smith, the same one responsible for the four-and-a-half minute interrogation, asked students numerous questions about whether I had ever said anything inappropriate or touched them, doing her best to plant doubts in their heads and lessen their support of me.
-During the termination hearing, Smith testified that when she interviewed female students, she detected "evidence of grooming," because they were all "protective" of me. She admitted they had never found one student who read No Child Left Alive, but that did not matter, both she and C. J. Huff testified, because I had "dangled" it in front of them by promoting it on my public websites. Huff, in tears, testified that he would never want his teenage daughter to have someone like me as a teacher, said it did not matter that I was a good teacher, and asked the board how they could take a chance on not firing me and have something horrible happen in the future. He added that he could not sleep at night if I remained in the district.
-Sexson testified that I had never told him about Scars from the Tornado, even though the president and treasurer of the PTO both testified that he had talked glowingly about the project to them a full 10 months before he says he heard of it for the first time.Though Huff tried to make it appear that I was profiting from student work, one of my fellow teachers testified about a plan I had for using the proceeds from the book to help students who had to face similar circumstances as the East Middle School students did after the tornado. Sadly, because of what happened that plan never came to fruition.
-None of the seven board members said anything to protest the allegations that Smith, Huff, and others made that were not related to the charges and for which they did not have any evidence. Board President Jeff Flowers noted the objection and allowed the slander to continue.
-Eventually, I was fired for three reasons- 1. I had promoted a book that even the board's decision said I had every right to publish on websites that I owned, including Room 210 Discussion, I had violated school policy by recording my interrogation (even though it was not against school policy until early 2014, months after I was gone) and I had published Scars without permission from administration. I did not lose my teaching license and the final decision, perhaps anticipating a lawsuit, made it clear that I had not done anything immoral.
-When I was terminated, all I received was my pay through the remainder of my contract, which I had already earned, since it was a nine-month contract with the payments spread out over 12 months. I received no additional time for insurance. Unlike Barlass, I not only did not have extra time to turn in all district-owned materials, I was required to do so two months before my firing.
-When I applied for unemployment insurance, I was rejected because Tina Smith said I had released confidential student information, something I had not done.
-I have yet to be interviewed for even one of the more than two dozen teaching positions I have applied for. I have heard from sources at some of the schools that the same line about releasing confidential student information had been told to them. I was also told that Huff and others who were in his administration continued to tell prospective employers that I had provided pornographic materials to 150 students (the approximate number I had in my classes). Huff went public with that in August 2014 when he told teachers at every school during what he termed "The Whirlwind Tour," that I had provided the pornographic material to the students. In some of those schools, he did not mention me by name, though he made it clear who he was talking about. The teachers at at least three of the schools heard him use my name making the same allegation.
Why didn't I sue after my firing?
That question has been asked by my critics and my supporters for the past three years. After the decision, I had only a couple of weeks to file an appeal. I was informed by NEA that it would not represent me in the appeal, primarily because the appeals are generally a foregone conclusion. They do not look for evidence, but whether the hearing was conducted according to law and it was. I contacted some lawyers and could find no one to represent me. So I decided not to appeal and lawyers I contacted since that time would not take the case because I did not appeal.
One local attorney, however, did agree to take my case, saying I had a strong First Amendment action since I had clearly been fired because of what I had written. Months went by and except for an occasional e-mail response, I did not hear from the lawyer. By the time I finally came to the conclusion, he did not plan to do anything, he had stopped responding to my e-mails. If I had been billed for any of this, I would have written about it earlier.
I have been told ACLU would take my case. No, it won't. I was rejected with a form letter carrying the signature of someone who has been a Turner Report follower for years. I suppose it was nothing personal.
With those avenues closed to me, I decided to use the skills I have and inform the Joplin community about what was going on in the R-8 School District and see if I could effect change by keeping the taxpayers/voters informed.
My story makes me uniquely qualified to offer this piece of advice- Lay off the current school board about what it is doing to clean up the mess created by its predecessors and by C. J. Huff and Angie Besendorfer.
Yes, I resent the going-away packages that Huff, Barlass, and others have received, but I don't see that the board had much choice.
Consider that the previous board with Mike Landis, Anne Sharp, and Randy Steele, made a conscious decision to add another year to Huff's contract, which already had two to go, even though an election was coming up in which voters had a chance to determine Huff;s future. The decision also come a short time before the release of a state audit, which was highly critical of Huff;s performance, an audit the board members fully knew was about to be released.
If there is anyone who doesn't believe Huff would have torn up this school district and all of the kids he claims to love in a heartbeat before going quietly into the gentle night, they don't know Huff at all. The board made a decision that many have criticized, but it was far more productive to get Huff out of R-8 and begin to clean up the mess The board had only two other options- wait for his contract to expire and see how many more millions he could cost and how many more teachers he could drive away or go through a long, drawn-out lawsuit that may have ended up costing as much in legal fees as the P1 Group lawsuit Huff brought upon the district.
The same thing applies to the other Huff Administration members who have been shown the door. Huff surrounded himself with the people who were not likely to do the honorable thing and leave quietly. Even when they are caught with their pants down, they have to receive an incentive to resign.
The draining of the swamp is not yet complete and those who are expecting to see test results immediately improve are not being realistic and more likely, have an agenda against the current board members.
It took C. J. Huff seven years to bring the school district to a place where it faces deep financial challenges, has driven away more than half of its experienced teachers, and infected the entire system with people who reached their current positions because of their ability to kiss up, backstab, or both.
And don't forget that the process of fixing these wrongs was delayed another year because Mike Landis, C. J. Huff, Jasper County Prosecuting Attorney Dean Dankelson, and the Jasper County Commission conspired to take away the vote of the elected board and appointed three people who slowed the progress, and for the most part, went along with what the remnants of the Huff Administration wanted to do.
I haven't agreed with everything the current school board has done. Many changes are left to be made and not enough has been done to reassure teachers and the community that anything is going to be different.
One reason for that is that the board members who were elected to change things cannot very well go around bragging that they are draining the swamp.
So let me do that for them.
The district is already immeasurably better because it is no longer contaminated by the likes of C. J. Huff, Mark Barlass, Terri Hart, Bud Sexson, Sarah Stevens, and others.
If it had not been for the fact that Huff left a poison pill parting shot at the board by providing contracts that will require another year for some of the remaining few of Huff's top administrators to be eliminated, the process would be even further along. This board, however, unlike Huff, would prefer not to involve the district in any more lawsuits than are absolutely necessary.
Even when those people are gone, the board and the new superintendent face the task of changing an administrative culture that was fostered by Huff and Besendorfer. Many of the principals and assistant principals who remain survived and thrived under C. J. Huff, because they were willing to do whatever they needed to do to advance and profit from the system. Until those people are gone or have changed their ways, we will continue to see teachers leaving the R-8 System.
Restoring the district to the successes it was having before C. J. Huff arrived is no easy task.
Fortunately, if we remain patient, we have elected the people who can do the job.