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Jefferson R-7 School District Superintendent Clint Johnston returned to his job Tuesday morning, after being on paid administrative leave for 55 days.

School board president Wayne Surratt said in a written statement late Monday afternoon that the board was “pleased to announce” Johnston’s return.

“The Board of Education and Mr. Johnston look forward to working collaboratively moving forward,” he said. “We hope our community will join us in focusing on the future for the sake of our students.”

Asked if the board placed any conditions on Johnston’s return or set any new goals or job targets for him, Surratt said, “Mr. Johnston returns to duty under the terms of his contract.”

The board voted unanimously during a June 5 special closed meeting to reinstate Johnston, Surratt said Monday.

He said the board didn’t want to reveal the move immediately after the vote.

“We had to move forward in a deliberate way and communicate with Mr. Johnston and make sure his return was orderly and the district was prepared to receive him.”

Johnston said Monday evening he hopes the focus can return to the business at hand as soon as possible.

“There were professional differences that had to be reviewed and addressed,” he said. “At the completion of that process, it was agreed upon that the board wanted me to return to my job. I can’t answer why the board needed to look at the situation, but they did.

“I love the kids, I love this community. My objective is to get to my office tomorrow morning and get to work. I’m excited to move forward. It’s going to be fun.”

The Board of Education placed Johnston on leave during an April 16 closed meeting, with no explanation.

Lynne Jackson, a former board member, was among those who called out the board for lack of transparency after Johnston’s sudden leave.

“We don’t know what is going on,” she said at the time. “We know our superintendent is on leave, but we don’t know why, or for how long, or whether it was voluntary. We are being stonewalled at every turn.”

The board announced April 17 that Danby-Rush Tower Middle School Principal Cindy Holdinghausen had been named interim superintendent, but declined to comment further. After several days, however, board member Tracey Perry said Johnston was on paid leave.

Sunshine Law requests for results of votes taken during the April 16 meeting were met with a statement that information about Johnston would not be disclosed, since the board had not voted to fire or discipline him. The Leader filed a Sunshine Law violation complaint against the district with the Missouri Attorney General’s office on April 24, and an investigation is ongoing.

‘This has gone on too long’

In the weeks following Johnston’s leave, social media was active with speculation about his status, and hundreds of district residents attended a series of closed-session-only school board meetings with no apparent resolution in sight.

On April 23, nearly 200 people attended a special meeting of the board, during which a 30-minute public comment period was allowed. Patrons pleaded with board members to reveal information about the situation.

“If you have a valid reason, let us know,” May Albano said that evening. “If you don’t, bring him back.”

The board met for nearly five hours, and adjourned near midnight without addressing the public.

Special closed-session meetings were held April 24, May 2 and May 15, each drawing at least 100 people, some who waited until the board returned to open session and adjourned, each time without comment.

At the May 2 meeting, the board voted to hire an interim superintendent from outside the district. The board adjourned without comment that night, but the next day Surratt announced the board had hired retired Affton Superintendent Steve Brotherton, saying the board was concerned that Holdinghausen’s workload was too heavy.

Brotherton signed a contract to work through May 31, making $62 per hour.

Surratt said he won’t know how much Brotherton earned until bills are paid this month. Surratt also said he doesn’t yet know how much the district has accumulated in legal fees over Johnston’s leave.

About 150 people attended the regular monthly open board meeting on May 29, and three people spoke during a public comment period.

“Good luck getting a bond issue or anything passed from now on, unless we get some answers,” district resident Nina Badger said. “This has gone on too long.”

About 150 people turned out for the June 5 special meeting.

While the board and Johnston say they are ready to move on, district residents may not be.

Concerned Citizens of R-7 spokesperson Pete McPeters, a former board member, said June 5 that the group is pursuing legislation that would create a legal mechanism to recall a school board member, something which does not currently exist in Missouri.

He said many people have grown politically aware because of Johnston’s situation.

“This has been good in the sense that a lot of people are getting really engaged with the business of the school, learning about the way things work,” he said. “I think a lot of people are going to stay involved with school going forward, and that’s a good thing.”

Not long after the announcement of Johnston’s return, district resident Meg Ebersoldt posted the following message to Facebook: “In our community we will see who rises with grace, who is redeemable, and who no longer fits our lives and visions of the future, and we will be better for it. Put away your animosity and anger and put on your work boots; we have things to do.”

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