Florida Superintendent Faces Class Action Suit

Published January 1, 1998

Calling for an immediate investigation into the forced retirement of Dr. Art Johnson, a group of community leaders gathered on the steps of the Boca Raton Police Department in Palm Beach County, Florida, on October 29 to announce that 1,280 citizens had filed Florida’s first “class action” criminal complaint against a public official. The complaint calls upon the States Attorney’s office to look into alleged violations of the Florida Sunshine Law by Palm Beach County School Superintendent Joan Kowal and attorney Glen Torcevia in Johnson’s forced retirement. Violators of the law could serve up to 60 days in jail.

Charles Garcia, who chairs the committee of political and religious leaders, educators, administrators, students, parents, and business leaders who support Johnson, is calling for the resignation of Superintendent Kowal. Garcia, president of Sterling Financial Investment Group, is a former White House Fellow who worked for Secretary of Education William Bennett.

“There are far greater, more certain, and more immediate penalties in Palm Beach County for serving up a single rotten hamburger in a restaurant than for repeatedly providing 130,000 schoolchildren with a rotten education,” declared Garcia. “Educational malpractice should carry stiff penalties,” he added.

Johnson’s thirty-year career in education included ten years as principal of Spanish River High School, where his trademark became the bullhorn he used to urge students to class on time. The school consistently had the top test scores in the county and, for seven out of eight years, also had the County’s best athletic record. National educators singled out Johnson’s high school for the Safe School Award and the Drug Free Recognition Program, one of few schools ever to win both awards.

“Dr. Johnson is too effective an educator not to be working with the students of Palm Beach County,” said Rabbi Merrel Singer of Temple Beth El. “He should be returned to our school system.”

Johnson’s exemplary work in training dozens of top school principals was recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education with the prestigious “Role Model” award. In his most recent position, supervising 26 principals as executive director of the school district’s Area Two, Johnson instituted a mandatory attendance policy for middle school students and a tough gang control policy. Those reforms were opposed by Superintendent Kowal and were eliminated following Johnson’s early retirement.

“Palm Beach County residents are tired of accepting the edicts of an autocratic, aloof Superintendent, who obstructs every common sense effort of school reform,” commented local business executive Leonard Turesky.

“The African American community is extremely cognizant of Art Johnson’s training of numerous minority educators for the principalship,” noted Art Kennedy, chief of staff to Congresswoman Alice Hastings. Kennedy urged that “Dr. Johnson’s ability to teach his leadership style to others should not be lost due to petty politics.”

The 95-page lawsuit contains 16 separate counts including Constitutional violations of due process, civil conspiracy, abuse of power, breach of contract, and violations of Florida’s Sunshine Law. A massive grassroots effort is raising $250,000 to keep Johnson in the school system.

The lawsuit is posted on the Osherow & Schwartz website at http://www.oshwartzlaw.com/updates.htm.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].