Months after the Columbia School Board unanimously voted not to extend the current middle school assistant principal’s contract, new information has come to light.
Still, questions remain.
Via a Freedom of Information Act request asking for materials related to Columbia Middle School Assistant Principal David Ackerman’s departure, the Republic-Times obtained a separation agreement reached between Ackerman and the board.
The document said Ackerman would receive $50,000 and an attached letter of recommendation provided he resign from the school district. The letter of recommendation was signed by Columbia Superintendent of Schools Chris Grode, and Ackerman will not receive any additional payments or benefits, the agreement said.
A brief letter of resignation addressed to the school board by Ackerman dated March 25 was included with the agreement as an exhibit.
At its April meeting, the school board voted to approve what was listed as “an administrator’s voluntary resignation as submitted” on the agenda. Columbia School Board President Greg Meyer told meeting attendees this action item pertained to Ackerman’s resignation, and told the Republic-Times this week that when the board unanimously voted on this action item, they voted on the separation agreement.
The agreement also said the district and Ackerman agreed to a statement that he resigned “to pursue other opportunities in education,” mutual confidentiality and a mutual non-disparagement clause.
Ackerman’s signature on the agreement is dated March 25, while Meyer and board secretary Tammy Hines’ signatures are dated April 20 – the day of the most recent board meeting.
“Seven of us voted on it unanimously, so it was obviously in the best interest of the school district,” Meyer said of the separation agreement.
Prior to the Republic-Times obtaining this separation agreement, some in the community suspected Ackerman’s resignation meant he was “bought out,” therefore leaving taxpayers to pay the cost of both Ackerman’s salary and that of his replacement.
Michelle Mueller, a concerned community member, said at the April meeting she feared this to be true.
Even though agreement terms did not include Ackerman’s entire salary (which was approximately $80,000 in 2021), Mueller said this week that the board still “essentially elected to waste $50,000 of taxpayer dollars.”
“Fifty thousand dollars and a non-disclosure agreement feels like the board knows it was wrong,” Mueller said. “This debacle was so secretive and manipulative and hidden from the public.”
The agreement also did not sit well with many of Ackerman’s co-workers.
“This sends the message that the board does not respect the opinion of its teachers and staff. Instead of listening to our impassioned pleas to keep Mr. Ackerman, they would prefer to waste district money,” said one of 11 district employees who spoke in support of Ackerman at the February school board meeting.
The Republic-Times FOIA request sought “any documents pertaining to the non-renewal of Mr. David Ackerman’s contract, his contract and/or a potential separation/release agreement.”
Further in the request it was specified these documents may include outcomes of potential disciplinary procedures or investigations, potential correspondence to the board about Ackerman and resignation letters.
The separation agreement, along with the letter of resignation and letter of recommendation as exhibits, were the only documents provided in response to this FOIA request.
Grode confirmed there was not a disciplinary hearing or investigation that led to Ackerman’s departure, nor was there any written correspondence to the board on the topic that could have been obtained via an open records request.
Meyer said it is not uncommon for those launching complaints not to do so in writing, as they may fear retaliation.
Both Grode and Meyer declined to speak further on the topic, citing the mutual confidentiality stipulation of the agreement. Ackerman also declined to comment for this story.
District employees and the general public are still left wondering why the board initially voted not to renew Ackerman’s contract and the circumstances leading to the separation agreement.
“It was mentioned (by Meyer in a previous article) that there are plenty of people who opposed Mr. Ackerman. However, we have never heard publicly from any of them,” said Mark Tullis, a fifth grade teacher at CMS. “There has been no clear reason given for Mr. Ackerman’s dismissal. If honesty and transparency are priorities, why can’t we know? I believe it’s because the reasons are personal and there are no professional reasons.”
Tullis was one of the district employees who spoke of Ackerman’s positive attributes – many of which were mentioned in the letter of recommendation included with the separation agreement – at the February meeting.
Grode and Meyer have consistently said they cannot discuss personnel matters, but Meyer previously told the Republic-Times that one of the common hypotheses about Ackerman’s contract not being renewed – that some board members held personal grudges against him – was “the furthest thing from the truth.”
After the April meeting, Meyer also clarified that “Mr. Ackerman’s departure had nothing to do with criminal activity.”
The Republic-Times had heard from three parents who voiced discontent with Ackerman. None of these parents wanted to be named, citing fear it could lead to retaliation against their children, and all said they did not voice their opinions to the board as a whole.
The parents cited alleged inconsistencies in discipline, while one said during a particular meeting with Ackerman they felt “unsupported as a parent.”
The next school board meeting takes place at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 19, in the district board room at 5 Veterans Parkway in Columbia.