Superintendent's son gets promoted, move is called into question

WEBUTUCK — The Webutuck Board of Education (BOE) approved the promotion of Landon Johns, son of Superintendent Richard Johns, as the Webutuck district’s head of maintenance during Monday’s BOE meeting. The vote passed 4-3, amid concerns from three BOE members and community members that nepotism and impropriety informed the action.

The superintendent rejected the charges.

"Because my son was going to apply for the position I really recused myself from the conversations," he told The Millerton News. "Obviously I was concerned about it or I wouldn’t have taken myself out of that whole process. You had to be aware of that whole concern."

Town Board member Joe Herald said he was concerned, which is why he voted against the promotion of Landon Johns.

"I don’t agree with the process that the board used, and that was my argument I used the whole time," Herald said. "When the board spoke first of the idea, we were brought the recommendation from the administration that they wanted to promote Landon originally, they wanted to bump up his salary based on his new certifications and licensing, and I was OK with that. That was fine."

But two meetings later, Herald said the board was discussing promoting Johns to a head maintenance position.

"I objected to designing the process by favoring one individual, but going through the legal steps needed for the rest of the employees. It felt wrong to me that the outcome was predetermined before we went in," Herald said. "To me, personally, this did not feel like it was fair to all members of our district or to anyone who wanted to apply from the outside."

That’s why, Herald said, he contacted the board’s legal counsel, who told him the move was legal. He relayed that message to the CSEA union, which also stepped forward with concerns about the promotion. Herald said he understood the group’s interest in the matter, especially as he could not quite reconcile his conscience with the whole affair.

"My objection was that I just wanted us, as a board and as a community, to make sure all of our actions were beyond reproach to the maximum extent. I felt uncomfortable with this," he said. "It was a 4-3 vote, and I voted my conscience with it."

In addition to Herald, Dale Culver and John Perotti also voted against the promotion of Landon Johns.

The four members of the BOE who voted in favor of the move were board President Bernadette Coniglio, Vice-President Susan Lounsbury, members Joanne Boyd and Joe Matteo.

"I think everything was done totally appropriate and in the same manner that we always hire for positions," Coniglio said. "I don’t know what to say, I feel comfortable with everything that was done and that’s all, and if people don’t trust the board than there’s nothing I can do about it."

But Tom Marshall, a social worker at the school and pastor of the United Presbyterian Church in Amenia, said that the public’s perception of what the school board and the school administration should matter.

"I think it’s created a huge rift in the community and people are very upset about it, " Marshall said. "If the district wants to get the confidence of the community back they have to re-look at this — nepotism is nepotism and short of favoritism — and the perception is that the position was specifically set up for this person."

Marshall added that if they did not have the opportunity, other well-qualified people should have been able to get the same training that Johns had in order to qualify for the higher post. He also said the BOE should consider rescinding its decision, if at all possible.

"From a pastoral point of view, I hear the people complain and I also see the morale of the staff is not good," he said. "My hope is that this will be addressed and reversed. If they don’t change it, I don’t think you’ll see the budget pass because there’s no confidence, and if you don’t have confidence in the people leading your schools..."

At Monday night’s school board meeting, resident Chip Barrett echoed Marshall’s concerns.

"I’m pulling for those votes to be rescinded," he said, to which the crowd broke out in applause.

Past BOE member Andrew Jablonsky, who was at the meeting, asked Coniglio what transpired at last week’s board meeting.

"Why was there a need to push the vote through?" he asked.

Coniglio, who delayed response until after public comment, said it wasn’t pushed through and that the board would discuss the issue at an upcoming board retreat.

BOE member Lounsbury, whose husband, Mark Lounsbury, is the director of maintenance and operations (which means he was one of the two key people to recommend Johns’ promotion), said she believed the process was fair.

"The process that we followed was the proper process that was open to all candidates," she said, adding that in a small district like Webutuck the pool of applicants is small, which might mean that relatives of school board members, or of the administration, could end up working for the district.

According to the superintendent’s secretary and district clerk, Therese Trotter, who places ads for the school district, the advertisement for the position of head maintenance worker never went out to local newspapers. Instead, she said it "was posted inhouse throughout the district, as per contract" for five days. Three applicants responded to the posting within those five days.

Webutuck Business Administrator Kevin Geoghan said that because three applicants responded within the five days of internal posting, according to CSEA regulations, the ad did not have to be placed in newspapers or any other public forum. The CSEA is the Civil Service Employees Association, Inc., which is the non-teachers’ union for the school district’s employees.

The resulting promotion of Johns, according to Lounsbury, was based solely on his credentials.

"Landon Johns was selected based on his skills and experience," she said. "As far as I am concerned I am completely confident that the board and the Webutuck staff followed the proper protocol in selecting Landon Johns and I know him to be an exemplary candidate. Unfortunately, those who are uninformed have come to the conclusion that that [nepotism] is why the decision was made, but that had nothing to do with it."

Landon Johns started with the district roughly three years ago as a seasonal worker. He was then hired full time as a maintenance person. There is already one other head maintenance worker on staff at Webutuck. Landon, when asked for comment, said, "I’ve worked at Webutuck going on three years now and I’ve come to work every day to do the best job I possibly could for co-workers, my colleagues and for the kids. I applied for the position and Mr. Geoghan and Mr. Lounsbury chose me over two other people who applied for it, and I was rewarded for my hard work."

According to Johns’ father, those who did not make the cut for the promotion were not upset that they didn’t get the opportunity.

"It’s not that they didn’t get a shot at it," he said. "It’s that they were concerned that they didn’t get it."

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