by Ivan Foley
A “personnel investigation requiring immediate action” is listed in the official minutes as the topic of two emergency closed session meetings held by the Park Hill School Board in advance of the resignation of Dr. Scott Springston as superintendent.
That fact comes to light in public documents obtained this week via a request for records made by The Landmark Newspaper using the state’s Sunshine Law.
In addition, just before deadline on Wednesday, The Landmark obtained a police document detailing a reported recent domestic disturbance involving Springston at his home in Weatherby Lake (see related story).
The Landmark acquired minutes from closed session meetings and also obtained a copy of the “resignation agreement” signed by Springston and the board of education.
The documents paint a picture of the school board meeting without the normal 24 hours posted notice on two consecutive days--on Tuesday, April 7 and Wednesday, April 8--to discuss what is referred to in the minutes only as a “personnel investigation.”
Then on April 9 in a closed session, the board authorized a resignation agreement with Springston. The minutes reflect the board agreeing to payment of all salary and benefits due to Springston through June 30 of this year, as well as any unused vacation pay.
In that same meeting, after authorizing the resignation agreement the board voted to place Springston on paid administrative leave through June 30.
Asked by the newspaper to shed light on the term “personnel investigation,” Nicole Kirby, director of communications for the school district, was short on specifics this week:
“It’s an investigation of personnel,” she said.
When asked if the term used in the board’s minutes is implying unapproved activity, Kirby said:
“What exactly it’s of isn’t described there (in the minutes).”
When asked if the matter was a personnel investigation of the superintendent, Kirby responded:
“It’s a personnel matter so I can’t say.”
Springston’s resignation was announced by the school district in a news release distributed Monday, April 13. The district’s release said the school board “has agreed to Dr. Springston’s request to resign.” The news release claimed that Springston was resigning “to address health-related matters.”
Observers have noted that it is puzzling why Springston, if he has a health issue, would suddenly resign rather than take a leave of absence and continue with the district’s health benefits rather than let those benefits expire on June 30.
Now there are questions surrounding the “personnel investigation” referenced in the board’s official minutes and what role it did or did not play in the unexpected resignation of a man who had his contract renewed less than 30 days prior.
Park Hill leaders--and its former superintendent--aren’t talking in any detail.
Springston recently declined an opportunity to answer a knock at the door by The Landmark at his home in Weatherby Lake.
Reached late Tuesday night, Boon Lee, president of the school board, downplayed the term “personnel investigation” as a matter of verbiage recommended by the district’s attorney. Lee said he stands behind the district’s initial press release indicating the resignation is health related. He told The Landmark that Kirby or the district’s attorney would be in contact with the newspaper Wednesday morning with a better explanation behind the reasoning for the terminology used in the board’s minutes.
But in a Wednesday morning phone conversation, The Landmark mentioned Lee’s remarks from the night before to Kirby. She was unaware of and seemed surprised by Lee’s comments to the newspaper, and again defined the term “personnel investigation” as “an investigation of personnel.”
Kirby confirmed the “personnel investigation” referenced in those minutes is no longer active.
Springston’s exit means Park Hill taxpayers will be paying Springston as much as $86,000 to not work for the next three months.
Springston’s base salary was $213,725. The district will pay about $70,508 into his pension in 2014-15. His contract included an annual $20,000 payment for “benefit maintenance” for the procurement of additional benefit items of his choice. Other district paid benefits, including health and life insurance, long-term disability and contributions to Medicare are valued at $28,568. His contract called for a $4,000 rider annual for a doctorate degree. In addition, the district paid him a monthly automobile allowance for local use of a personal vehicle in the amount of $800 per month, $9,600 per year. This brings the total value of his compensation package for the current school year to more than $346,000.
In addition, the district is paying $25,302 to Springston for unused vacation pay.
The “resignation agreement” approved by the board and Springston includes a couple of noteworthy paragraphs.
One section details that Springston “waives any claim for reinstatement, and agrees not to seek re-employment with Park Hill at any time in the future. Dr. Springston agrees that Park Hill may rely upon this agreement in refusing employment of him at any time in the future.”
Another section details that “Park Hill acknowledges that it will hold Dr. Springston’s personnel file confidential and will not disclose the contents of that file unless compelled to do so by law.”
There is a paragraph in the resignation agreement, which is a contract to terminate employment, that states:
“Dr. Springston agrees that he will not make any comments relating to Park Hill, including Park Hill’s board members or its employees, which are defamatory. Park Hill agrees that its administrators and board members will not make comments relating to Dr. Springston that are defamatory.”
The agreement also states: “Any party may, without violating the confidentiality provision, respond to inquiries regarding Dr. Springston’s employment by stating that it has been terminated by mutual agreement of the parties.”
A section of the agreement deals with confidentiality. It states Springston shall keep the agreement strictly confidential and it shall not be disclosed to third parties, except “as required by process of law and that Dr. Springston may disclose the agreement to his spouse, attorneys, and financial advisors.”
The agreement then adds: “Park Hill shall keep this agreement strictly confidential, except it may disclose the existence or terms of this agreement to those with a business-related need to know, including attorneys, financial advisors, and auditors, or pursuant to a lawful open records request.”
The document indicates Springston was being represented in the matter by Greg Goheen, an attorney with the firm McAnany, Van Cleave and Phillips.
The Landmark put in its “lawful open records request” on Monday and Park Hill officials provided the document Tuesday.
Jean Maneke, a Kansas City-based attorney who advises the Missouri Press Association and members like The Landmark in matters pertaining to the state’s open records law, said:
“Despite the agreement saying it is a confidential document and confidential settlement, public governmental bodies are not permitted to keep a settlement agreement confidential unless they get a court order closing the agreement. And even then, the amount of funds paid by the public body to an individual to settle a claim cannot be a closed record.”
TIMELINE OF FACTS
In March, just one month before Springston and the district parted ways, the school board had unanimously extended his contract through the 2017-18 school year.
Then in late March at a closed session meeting, the board met with Springston to discuss the superintendent evaluation process for 2015-16 and agreed to follow a timeline established that night.
Sources have told The Landmark that Springston was away from the office the following week, roughly March 30 through April 3.
Then on Tuesday, April 7, which was the day of the school board election, the board held the first of what official minutes term an “emergency closed session” at 3 p.m.
Board members present were Allison Wurst, Janice Bolin, Matt Pepper, Todd Fane and Susan Newburger. Board members Bart Klein and Boon Lee were present by conference call, with Klein joining the meeting at 3:18 p.m. Springston was not present at this or any of the subsequent meetings.
Others present included Linda Salfrank, who serves as Park Hill’s on-staff legal counsel; Opal Hibbs, the board secretary; and Tina Freeman, administrative assistant.
Interestingly, Hibbs, who serves as board secretary and as secretary to the superintendent, and who normally takes minutes, left the meeting prior to discussion and Freeman, an administrative assistant, took the minutes for the meeting.
Once in closed session, minutes show the meeting discussion was led by Salfrank, the school’s attorney.
The minutes state:
“Salfrank stated this meeting was called without the required 24 hour notice. Under state statute there is basis to hold a meeting at the request of a board member as long as the basis is noted in the minutes. The basis for this meeting being called by Board President Susan Newburger, without the required 24 hour notice, is a personnel investigation requiring immediate attention by the board of education.”
The meeting adjourned at 4:45 p.m.
On Wednesday, April 8 at 2 p.m. the board holds another “emergency closed session.” All seven board members are listed as present including Wurst, Bolin, Pepper, Lee, Klein, Fane and Newburger.
Others present included Salfrank, the board attorney, and Freeman, the administrative assistant who had also taken minutes at the first emergency meeting. Hibbs, the normal board secretary, is not present.
Salfrank again led the discussion, according to the minutes. Salfrank explained the meeting was called without the required 24 hours notice.
“The basis for board president Susan Newburger calling this meeting without the required 24-hour notice is an ongoing personnel investigation requiring immediate action that makes it impossible to post 24-hour notice.”
Minutes indicate four assistant superintendents were brought into the meeting at individual times at the board’s request. Observers say it’s possible the purpose of bringing in the assistant superintendents at various times was part of the board’s process of choosing an acting superintendent after Springston’s departure.
The assistants called in individually included Dr. Bill Redinger, assistant superintendent for human resources; Dr. Jeff Klein, assistant superintendent for academic services; Dr. Paul Kelly, assistant superintendent for business and technology; and Dr. Jeanette Cowherd, assistant superintendent for school improvement.
When Springston’s resignation was announced to the public a few days later, Cowherd was announced as the acting superintendent.
The meeting adjourned at 4:33, more than 2.5 hours after it had begun.
On Thursday, April 9 the board held a closed session beginning at 4:30 p.m. The board had a scheduled meeting on the docket for this evening, a reorganizational session after the Tuesday election.
The closed session on this date featured all seven board members present, with Pepper joining five minutes late. Also present were Salfrank, the board attorney; and Hibbs, the board secretary. The minutes show that Cowherd joined the meeting at 5:50 p.m. at the board’s request.
A motion was passed unanimously to “authorize resignation agreement with Dr. Springston to include payment of all salary and benefits due under his current employment agreement through June 30, 2015, as well as payment for any accrued but unused vacation pay.
Then a motion was passed unanimously to place Springston “on paid administrative leave” through June 30, 2015.
On Monday, April 13, a closed session special meeting was held beginning at 4:30 p.m. Five board members were present in person, including newly-elected board member Karen Holland. Newburger joined by live video conference, and Fane was absent.
Others present included Salfrank, and Hibbs. Cowherd and Nicole Kirby, the district’s director of communications, joined the meeting at 4:55 p.m.
Salfrank recommended that the new board ratify the action that the outgoing board had taken on April 9 in regard to Springston. The motion to authorize the resignation agreement was again approved, with new board member Holland abstaining. The motion to place Springston on administrative leave was also approved with Holland abstaining.
Then the board passed a motion “to accept Dr. Springston’s request to resign effective June 30, 2015” and a motion “to employ Dr. Jeanette Cowherd as acting superintendent through June 30, 2015.”