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Central Leader Departs

MONMOUTH/INDEPENDENCE -- Joseph Hunter stepped down last week as superintendent of Central School District following three years of criticism about his leadership from some local residents and distric

MONMOUTH/INDEPENDENCE -- Joseph Hunter stepped down last week as superintendent of Central School District following three years of criticism about his leadership from some local residents and district employees.

As part of his departure, Hunter will receive a settlement agreement worth $225,000 that resolves the remaining two years of his employment contract.

Central School Board unanimously accepted Hunter's resignation, and approved the settlement, on Thursday, April 21. The move was made mutually, "to serve the best interests of the school district," said board chairwoman Susan Meikle Stoops.

"I think it was a good decision and I hope it will help the district begin to heal," Stoops said.

Hired by Central in 2005, Hunter's management of the district has been under public scrutiny since 2008, primarily because of his rapport with his staff.

In 2009, almost all of Central's faculty and classified workers voted "no confidence" in his ability to lead.

There have been questions regarding his handling of district finances and of the Central High reconstruction bond. And he's been investigated because of formal complaints by multiple district employees and one private citizen, Kathleen Stanley.

The latter complaint alleged, among other things, that Hunter was taking reimbursement for vacation days beyond what his contract allowed.

The board, in a Feb. 22 letter to Stanley, opined that Hunter had committed no violations.

Hunter and the board have generally declined to address specific complaints about him in public, citing employee due process rights.

Hunter was contacted by an Itemizer-Observer

reporter on April 22 to discuss his resignation. Hunter asked for a list of questions via e-mail in advance.

That list was provided the same day; Hunter had not responded as of press time.

Hunter signed a three-year contract last summer that was to have run through June 30, 2013. It entailed a $122,000 annual salary, plus monthly insurance contributions and payroll taxes.

The settlement agreement will pay Hunter $225,000 in payments over two years -- which is the value of 14 of the remaining 26 months of his contract, plus a cash out of unused vacation and personal leave.

In an April 25 e-mail response to preliminary questions from the Itemizer

about the resignation, Stoops wrote that the school board was not dissatisfied with Hunter's performance and was not considering firing Hunter with cause.

The board appointed Forrest Bell, a former Central superintendent, to serve as an interim superintendent through June 30.

Bell will receive a daily pay rate of $472.30, with no retirement or insurance benefits.

If he's willing, Bell could remain in that position beyond that date until a new district head is hired during the 2011-12 school year, the board has said.

Bell had been hired in February to supervise three district employees who had filed complaints -- the nature of them aren't public -- against Hunter.

That spurred a legal investigation that has now been halted.

"Because of the resignation, the board has no reason to investigate further," Stoops wrote.

A phone call to Stoops to elaborate on issues related to Hunter's departure was not returned by press time.

Stanley is a former board member who has raised concerns about district operations and leadership via her watchdog blog, The Central Advocate.

Stanley, one of Hunter's strongest critics, said he "failed miserably" when it came to relationships with community members and his staff.

"If the board had done its job properly three years ago and instructed the superintendent to clean up some of the issues, it might not have reached this crisis point," she said. "I do think people are relieved that this part of the saga is over."

But the settlement agreement is disturbing in light of proposed

district program and personnel cuts for 2011-12, Stanley said.

"I'm sure there's people out there irked at the notion of people at the top who, as they mess up, get a payout in order to leave," she said. "And that's whether it happens on Wall Street or at the level of a local superintendent."

Central had been in the midst of developing its 2011-12 budget in recent weeks, with Hunter as chief administrator.

Stoops wrote that Hunter's resignation should not impact that process.

"We will proceed with the budget calendar exactly as it has been published," she said.

Timeline

Resignation of a superintendent

March 2005 -- Joseph Hunter hired as Central School District Superintendent.

Nov. 2006 -- Residents approve $13.5 million bond for safety and energy improvements in local schools.

Nov. 2008 -- A $47.3 million bond for a reconstruction of Central High School passes.

June 2009 -- Central faculty members and classified employees vote "no confidence" in Hunter over handling of contract negotiations and employee inquiries.

July 2010 -- Central School Board approves three-year contract extension for Hunter.

Oct. 2010 -- Some community members begin distribution of a letter calling on district leaders to oust Hunter for alleged mismanagement of school resources, bond oversight and deteriorated rapport with staff.

Nov. 2010 -- Local resident files a formal complaint against Hunter, alleging improper reimbursements for personal expenses.

Feb. 2011 -- District receives 250 signed petitions from residents expressing no confidence in Hunter's leadership in the district.

Feb. 2011 -- Hunter is named a finalist for a superintendent opening in the St. Helens School District; officials there opt not to hire him after issues in Central come to their attention.

Feb. 2011 -- Three district employees file formal complaints against Hunter; supervisor for complainants is hired.

April 21, 2011 -- Hunter resigns.

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