Judge Rules In Johnson Case But Controversy Remains

Leading up to and during contract renewal negotiations in 2010, documents show, the then-chairman of the Sandwich School Committee was communicating privately with the then-superintendent of schools, Mary Ellen Johnson.

The documents have emerged in the wake of a summary judgment ruling last week by Barnstable Superior Court Judge Christopher J. Muse, who found that the school committee breached its contract with Dr. Johnson in 2010.

Reached last night by telephone, former chairman Robert F. Simmons Jr. characterized the e-mail communications with Dr. Johnson as part of the normal back-and-forth between two sides.

“We were trying to build a contract,” he said.

In November 2010, Dr. Johnson sued the committee and four of its then-members on the contract issue. The suits came after the committee first renewed the contract and then, after questions arose about the legality of that meeting and following a town election, revoted not to renew the contract.

In his ruling, Judge Muse said Dr. Johnson was entitled to back pay for the two years on the contract extension that never came to be, as well as other compensation. That final figure must still be negotiated between the town and Dr. Johnson.

“I of course was relieved that the decision was made,” Dr. Johnson said yesterday afternoon. “This has been an extremely long process.”

Dr. Johnson estimated that she will receive more than $300,000.

Town manager George H. Dunham said Tuesday that he anticipates that the town’s insurance carrier likely will cover some, but not necessarily all, of whatever monetary sum is finally negotiated.

Mr. Dunham said the carrier has been covering the town’s legal costs in the case, which include representation at the superior and appellate court levels.

Most of the case centers on events in the spring of 2010.

On April 30, 2010, the school committee voted to extend Dr. Johnson’s contract for two years.

But the Cape & Islands District Attorney’s Office found that the meeting had been improperly posted, and advised the committee to repost and revote that meeting’s agenda.

Meanwhile, a town election had been held on May 6, 2010, and the membership of the school committee had changed.

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On June 16, 2010, the committee voted against extending Dr. Johnson’s contract.

Dr. Johnson, who still had time left on her contract, continued to work at the district that year.

In November 2010, she filed suit in Barnstable Superior Court against the district and against the four school committee members who had voted against renewing her contract.

Dr. Johnson initially lost her superior court lawsuit. But she successfully appealed that decision.

That led to the return of the case to Barnstable Superior Court, which is where Judge Muse ruled last week that the committee had breached her employment contract.

The judge said due public notice effectively had been given as of the April 30 meeting, giving the school committee the legal authority to approve the contract extension.

In his ruling, Judge Muse denied three other counts brought by Dr. Johnson in the lawsuit concerning the Massachusetts Fair Wage Act, indemnification, and interference with contractual relations.

The last count was based on the alleged actions of current school committee members Nancy A. Crossman and Marie A. Kangas, and former school committee members Jessica A. Linehan and Sharron L. Marshall.
On Tuesday evening, in a group interview, Ms. Crossman, Ms. Kangas, Ms. Linehan and Ms. Marshall said they were relieved that Judge Muse had denied the count involving them in the case.

They also said they are extremely sensitive to and concerned about the impact that the monetary settlement will have on the town.

The women said that back in 2010, they did not cast around for ways to re-vote the contract extension with an eye toward turning it down.

Instead, they said they believed that the school committee had approved the contract extension for Dr. Johnson on April 30, 2010, and were surprised when the district attorney advised revisiting actions taken that evening.

As for the count against the four committee members, Judge Muse stated in his decision that Dr. Johnson’s affidavit “claims that one or more of the committee members engaged in mean-spirited conduct that was vexatious to the plaintiff, such as telling certain employees not to abide by the plaintiff’s directives or other school policies, questioning her educational credentials, and otherwise acting in a hostile manner toward her.

“The plaintiff claims that such activities interfered with her ability to effectively carry out her job duties, as required by her employment contract, thereby constituting tortuous interference with said contract,” the judge stated.

Judge Muse said such conduct, as portrayed by the plaintiff, was petty and demeaning, but did not rise to interference with contractual relations.

On Tuesday, the four women said they in fact had incurred Dr. Johnson’s displeasure by raising objective questions about the operation of the school district.

The women said they also belatedly learned as the case went on about what they considered direct, back-channel communications in 2010 from Mr. Simmons to Dr. Johnson.

In a January 26, 2010, e-mail to the superintendent, the school committee chairman writes, “I’m definitely not going to run this spring. I think part of the mudslinging that’s going on now is to discourage me from running – maybe it will let up once I’m out of the game…

“Before I go, we need to resolve your current evaluation, do another one as of April – and modify the policy to force all future ones to be done in April (before the election) rather than in November. We also have to lengthen your contract and add some more creative compensation options.”

The committee had conducted an evaluation of Dr. Johnson in November 2009.

Of the seven school committee members, Dr. Johnson said yesterday afternoon, five gave her very positive ratings and two gave her less positive ratings. She said she wanted to know the reasons cited by the less positive members, but said Mr. Simmons could not get that feedback from them. For the next few months, the committee took no action on the evaluation.

The evaluation remained effectively in limbo for months.

On April 28, 2010, the school committee met and discussed whether to extend Dr. Johnson’s contract. Ms. Linehan said the proposed extension was for one year.

The committee, coming on a discrepancy in the contract language, voted to continue the meeting to April 30, by which time a clarification was anticipated.

In an April 29 e-mail from Mr. Simmons to Dr. Johnson, with “Two years OK” written in the subject field, Mr. Simmons wrote, “We have the votes/ I’m out – will talk later/Hang in there/Bs/Bob Simmons.”

At the April 30 meeting, the committee voted to extend Dr. Johnson’s contract by two years, to mid-2013. The vote was 3-2.

In May 2010, Town Clerk Taylor D. White learned that concerns had been raised about whether the April 30 meeting had been properly posted. The four women said they did not raise those concerns.

In a May 6, 2010, e-mail to Dr. Johnson, Mr. Simmons wrote about the posting issue.

“If a complaint is filed, it is likely the new committee will have to re-vote the contract. I apologize. bs.”

In a May 18, 2010, letter from assistant district attorney Thomas G. Shack III to Ms. Marshall, the newly elected chairman of the school committee, Mr. Shack wrote that the April 30 meeting had not been adequately posted under the law, and that “any business undertaken at the meeting is a nullity. The meeting should be re-posted and reheard pursuant to the provisions of the Open Meeting Law.”

On Tuesday evening, Ms. Marshall and the other three women named in the suit said they followed the direction of the district attorney’s office concerning the rescheduling of the meeting in good faith.

Last night, Mr. Simmons called the resolution of the case “a long time coming.”

“The whole case didn’t have to happen, shouldn’t have happened,” he said. “We’ve gone in a circle.”
 

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