Cutting class

Hasty departure of RISD chief leaves district in a school daze

Vernon Johnson is leaving his $125,000-a-year gig as superintendent of the Richardson Independent School District at the end of March to become the chief executive officer at Voyager Expanded Learning Inc. To hear him describe it, leaving the school district to take a job in the public sector--working for a startup educational programming company in Dallas, no less--was a sudden move.

"I'm driving along the street all fat and happy, and suddenly I get hit by a 2-by-4," is how he puts it.

But Johnson's opportunity at Voyager, a private company that will provide after-school programs intended to replace day-care, was not quite so unforeseen, nor was it as abrupt or cordial as Johnson makes it appear. It was, in fact, a large enough jolt to leave a bitter taste in the mouths of those RISD officials and parents who feel Johnson has betrayed them and their children by fulfilling only two years of a five-year contract.

And that bitterness--which is partially a hangover from recent public debates, led by Johnson, about plans to redraw school-district lines to rebalance enrollments and ethnic compositions in the schools--is giving rise to rumors about exorbitant salaries and a possible conflict of interest on Johnson's part.

"I know that his leaving has upset people," concedes Randy Best, a local entrepreneur and founder of Voyager.

In fact, at least two RISDparents raised their concerns to the school board in December 1995, shortly after they learned Johnson was leaving his post. According to Cheryl Taylor, president of the Parent-Teacher Association at Arapaho Elementary, the parents were upset they had lost a superintendent to private industry and worried they might lose more educators to the Voyager program. The parents' point, Taylor says, was, "Let's not get taken again."

"There are a lot of people in Richardson who don't like Voyager," Taylor says flatly.

Johnson was offered his new job as chief executive officer at Voyager because of contacts he made with the company early in his tenure as superintendent. Johnson, who was introduced to the company six months before handing in his resignation as superintendent, was among the first school administrators in the area contacted by Voyager representatives when the company began approaching districts last year about its pilot after-school programs.

The superintendent met with Voyager and gave it an enthusiastic response. He introduced the company's officials to the principals at four Richardson elementary schools, who ultimately agreed to permit the company to run pilot programs during the 1995-96 academic year. Voyager also established pilot programs this past year at six Dallas Independent School District institutions, as well as at the private school Lamplighter.

Because Johnson didn't "personally approve" the Voyager pilot programs, RISD board member Lee Cochran says, Johnson's past deals create no conflicts of interest.

Johnson dismisses the possibility he was playing both sides of the street. "They were simply asking if we were interested in pilot programs," he says about Voyager's initial contact. He says the meetings occurred months before he spoke to Voyager about a job, and he didn't make the final decision about whether Voyager would get a contract with RISD.

When Johnson finally decided to take a job with Voyager in December 1995, he told the school board he wanted to leave the following month. But board officials insisted he make the shift at a much later date, preferably at the end of the 1995-96 school year. Though Johnson had a five-year contract, Cochran says state statutes only allow the school board to hold the superintendent to his contract through the end of a school year.

Johnson was also deeply mired in a battle between the underpopulated northern RISD schools and the overcrowded schools in the southern sector of the district. The board recently approved Johnson's redistricting plan, which will cost between $86.3 million and $118 million. The issue goes before voters at a bond election in fall 1996.

"I was very disappointed when he informed us that he would be leaving," Cochran says. "There was a difference of opinion about when he would leave. He wanted to leave in December. We knew we couldn't hold him beyond June, so we compromised on April."

Johnson's quick departure triggered rumors about his supposedly exorbitant salary at Voyager. Some RISD teachers had heard he would be earning as much as $500,000 a year.

According to Johnson and his new employer, Randy Best, the talk about big bucks is pure fiction. Best says Johnson's salary will not even amount to half that. "He didn't do this for the money," Best insists of the superintendent's switch.

Johnson agrees, though he wouldn't reveal his new salary. "It's my private life," he says. "And for once in my life, I have a private life."

Ironically, for all this talk of big money, Voyager, which now operates with a staff of about 30, actually lost $160,000 a month during its testing phase in RISD and other area schools, according to Best. Nonetheless, come the fall semester, the company intends to roll out after-school programs at about 200 schools nationwide, involving some 8,000 students. Included in Voyager's plans are about 40 institutions in the Dallas area, with others in Seattle, Atlanta, Denver, and Charlotte, North Carolina.

For its after-school programs, the company has developed a curriculum that merges education with entertainment. It was created for children--in kindergarten through the eighth grade--who might otherwise spend their after-school time in day-care programs, and it's intended to teach them about numerous subjects.

Parents will have to pay $3 an hour to enroll their children--who are called, appropriately enough, "Voyagers" in the company's promotional materials. Voyager, in turn, hires teachers at the participating school, paying $40 a day to have them stay an extra two hours, and uses the school's facilities.

Voyager's promotional materials boast of multidisciplinary programs dealing with such subjects as astronomy, mythology, architecture, anthropology, and entomology. There's even a business program called Success City, U.S.A. in which "the Voyagers...are young business owners, employees, and consumers." The children are even encouraged to make loans and prepare rŽsumŽs--which they might consider handing over to the RISD school board.

With Johnson scheduled to be out the door next month, the board has begun its search for a replacement. So far, the recruiting firm hired by the board has produced 10 possible candidates, six of whom are from Texas. Board member Cochran says he expects a decision as early as the first week of April.

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