Former PRP principal and attorney fire back against allegations
A Jefferson County Public Schools report released last week concluded that David Johnson stayed at more expensive hotels than students and other staff when traveling to school events and ate at more expensive restaurants, “treating himself to luxurious vacations and amenities at the expense of PRP."
Johnson denied any intentional wrongdoing in an interview. He said no tax dollars were spent, he did not feel his expenditures were "excessive" and he had never been told that spending money from the school's “activity” funds was a problem before, that it was a "common practice" across the district.
“It might be their opinion that I overspent,” Johnson said, but he argued that the expenditure of these funds -- which are collected from the sale of snacks and soft drinks in teacher lounges - have been audited twice a year and he had never before been told these actions were wrong.
“If I had ever been told -- you know, I’m a good soldier -- I would have said, ‘Ok, it will never happen again,’” he said. His attorney, William Walsh, said Johnson had been using a PRP credit card for the activity fund account for several years.
Johnson announced his retirement last week. The school district had recommended his firing.
Asked why he chose to retire if he had done nothing wrong, Johnson said, “I was just tired. I lost my respect for JCPS. I’ve given 31 good years and I’m ready to move on.”
He also said he may stay in education and has been contacted by a few nearby school districts, though he declined to name them. Johnson was removed from PRP in January and reassigned to central office.
Johnson must reimburse the district about $12,000 before his last day on June 30, said JCPS spokesperson Ben Jackey.
During negotiations with JCPS this month, Walsh said Johnson agreed to retire rather than be fired and possibly face a lengthy legal battle and was told Johnson would be permitted to “quietly” resign, which “I thought meant they wouldn’t call him a crook in the press.”
And Walsh said there was no discussion during the negotiation of paying back $12,000 in unauthorized expenses, saying they first heard about that demand in a Courier-Journal article last week.
"I thought we had a binding agreement and that we didn't do anything wrong," Walsh said. "I don't think we owe any money."
Walsh wouldn't rule out Johnson paying back the money, saying they are "considering" it.
Jackey said Johnson saw a draft of the investigative report weeks ago that showed the amount of money "he was expected to reimburse the district." (Jackey did not say what the district would do if Johnson decided not to reimburse the money. He has said they do not plan to file criminal charges.)
But Walsh said any reimbursement was a "recommendation”and didn’t know it was a demand until receiving a letter from the district on Monday.
“They weren’t asking for the money,” Walsh said of the negotiations. “I didn’t think it was an issue because they didn’t make it one.”
JCPS officials say Johnson took trips to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Chicago; Lexington, Kentucky; and a trip to New Orleans, spending thousands on expensive meals and hotels while lodging separately from the students he was supposed to be chaperoning.
Johnson said he was with the students during the day, but staying near them at night was not a requirement.
“I spent the entire day with these kids and because I wanted some privacy in the evening, I stayed a few condos down from them but then in the morning I was back with them,” he said of one trip.
And while he told investigators that he was a “chaperone” – which would mean he was required to stay with the students – he and his attorney say that Johnson misspoke.
“It was just the first thing that came to my mind,” Johnson said. “They tried to get me on a matter of semantics.”
Johnson acknowledged it was a mistake to use the school credit card for an additional driver fee for a non-JCPS employee, more than once, saying he has paid that money back.
“I didn’t even think about it,” he said. “It was never mentioned by the audits.”
And Walsh said Johnson has paid back $16 for a movie in his hotel room and more than $800 in improper reimbursements he received for meals during a trip to New Orleans. Walsh said Johnson tried to cancel a voucher requesting reimbursement for those meals but, because of a mistake, the money was deposited directly to his credit account.
Johnson said he was also told by JCPS accounting director Eddie Muns that the activity funds are handled “loosely” and are “extremely flexible.”
In a March 28 letter to the district’s attorney, after the investigation was completed, Walsh included a Q & A handed out by Muns to educators about the flexibility of these funds.
“At a minimum, my client had reason to believe that such expenditures were permissible when using such funds and so acted in good faith,” Walsh wrote.
But Jackey said in an e-mail that "there is a difference between flexible and the manner in which Mr. Johnson used the funds.”
Johnson also denies paying for a companion’s food during the trips, though the investigation pointed out numerous receipts with more than one person dining.
Johnson said he sometimes ate with staff but didn’t pay for dinner for any non-JCPS employee.
Asked about a specific meal in Chicago where the bill for two people was $110, Johnson said he couldn’t remember who he was with. Walsh said it is unreasonable to require Johnson to remember who he had dinner with years ago.
Jackey said of Johnson's spending: "It's not just the amount. It's the way in which it was spent."
In a March 28 letter to the district’s attorney, Walsh explained the reasoning behind each of 14 accusations against Johnson, calling the findings “often unfair or incorrect.”
Walsh wrote that Johnson “hardly treated himself to luxurious vacations and amenities’” as the district alleges. In fact, he wrote, given “the types of accommodations often provided for traveling District employees, the amounts paid” for by Johnson “were relatively modest.”
The money Johnson used was from an “adult activity fund” and spent according to the district's rules.
The district investigation claims PRP’s adult activity funds were running at a deficit far exceeding of those at other JCPS schools -- and had been at a deficit at the school for many years. The account included numerous purchases made for staff holiday gifts, staff clothing, candy, personal trips, catered meals and restaurant meals, according to the investigation.
Walsh wrote that “it may be fair” to decide that such expenditures should not be permitted while there is a deficit in the adult activity fund.
“This, however, has not been the case before and it is not fair to punish or condemn Dave Johnson for doing something he had every reason to think was acceptable heretofore,” Walsh wrote.
And Walsh said PRP is not the only school running a deficit in adult activity funds.
Also, while there is a dispute about how big of a deficit the school has in the adult activity account at PRP, “the spending in question ought to be evaluated in light of what a good school PRP has been under Dave Johnson.”
The New Orleans trip was for a conference and was approved, Walsh said, and the others trips were to follow PRP athletic events and were approved by Johnson’s supervisor in advance.
“Dave sees it as, and justifies it to his supervisor as, 'I love PRP sports like nothing else on earth because it’s something I grew up with and the kids see me at the games and they know I care about them and their games.'”
Walsh said Johnson was attending game, not “hanging around on the beach on vacation."
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