The Holcomb USD 363 Board of Education on Monday approved the hire of Jason Johnson as the district's new high school principal, a position he will assume starting next school year in the wake of current principal Rob Schneeberger's resignation, which is effective at the end of June.

Schneeberger said he decided to take a job in Oswego to be closer to his and his wife’s families, including a new grandchild, in the Kansas City area. He will be the principal for grades 7-12 at USD 504 starting next fall. Oswego is located in southeast Kansas.

As for his successor, Schneeberger is in full support.

“He’ll be very good for the job. He’s already knowledgeable and invested in the community. He’s extremely knowledgeable about state affairs … He’s going to do real well,” Schneeberger said of Johnson.

Board president Matthew Jones said the board began accepting applications soon after Schneeberger’s resignation in mid-Febuary. Incoming USD 363 Superintendent Scott Myers selected three finalists, Jones said. A hiring committee comprised of Myers, Jones, board member Sean Sheets and Holcomb educators Michelle Baier and Chad Novack, interviewed Johnson and one other finalist on April 5 and 6.

The board voted unanimously to hire Johnson, who will start his new job Aug. 1.

Johnson has worked 16 years in the education field, coaching in Holcomb, working as a business and computer teacher for seven years, working in administration for several districts — including five years as a K-8 principal in Meade — and serving as a senior leadership consultant for the Southwest Plains Regional Service Center in Sublette since 2014. He holds a bachelor's of science degree from Fort Hays State University in business education and a master's of science from Emporia State University in building leadership.

According to Myers and Jones, he was by far the most qualified candidate to apply.

Jones said the hiring committee was looking for a good leader who would be approachable to students and staff and open to change.

“He’s a forward thinker, which I think will be a good thing. Education is changing every day, and I think he’s got a great vision,” Jones said.

Johnson, who’s lived in and seen his children attend school in Holcomb for the past four years, said he was glad for the opportunity and looked forward to “keeping Holcomb on the upper echelon of schools in the state of Kansas.”

“Kids need to have the opportunity to have someone that cares about them and get to do something they love to do. That’s based on information that the Gallup organization has published on what makes kids successful … I’d really like to have the opportunity to put some of that into action at Holcomb High in the next few years,” he said.

Johnson said he slowly wanted to evolve the atmosphere at the high school to be a place where kids felt physically and mentally safe, loved and welcomed every day.

“We’re going to encourage teachers, and we’re going to encourage the students to find their passion, let them explore what it is that they love to do and what they want to accomplish once they graduate from Holcomb High,” Johnson said.

Jones and Johnson said that the hiring committee discussed logistical complications during Johnson’s interviews, namely the fact that Johnson is the brother of Holcomb High School athletic director Jerry Johnson, and the son of school board member Jean Johnson.

The district’s nepotism policy states that no employee will be allowed to directly supervise or evaluate any direct family member. Jones said the hiring committee discussed the issue that Johnson would be the direct supervisor of his brother, Jerry, and considered having Jerry report to another superior, such as Myers or Holcomb Middle School principal Tyler Helton, since Jerry also serves as the middle school’s athletic director.

Myers confirmed that he planned to evaluate Jerry to remove any possible conflict of interest.

Jason Johnson said such a situation isn’t new to him. When he was a principal in Meade, his wife was a counselor at his school and was instead evaluated by the district’s superintendent.

Donna Whiteman, assistant executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards Legal Services, which Holcomb USD 363 refers to for legal matters, said a superintendent evaluating an employee if the principal was related to that employee was fairly common, especially in smaller communities.

“As long as the superintendent or another administrator would evaluate him, it wouldn’t be in conflict with their policy.” Whiteman said, referring to Jerry Johnson.

Jason Johnson said that should a disciplinary situation arise with any staff member under him, regardless of relation, the school board and superintendent would immediately be notified.

The district's nepotism policy also states that the superintendent must make it known to the board if a candidate for a position is related to a board member or administrator. A segment reads: “Except in an emergency, the board will not employ anyone who is the father, mother, brother, sister, spouse, son, daughter, stepson, stepdaughter, son-in-law, or daughter-in-law of any board member.”

Whiteman said the language about “an emergency” was intentionally flexible in order to cater to smaller districts and communities, where it’s often difficult to find candidates and where family members working together is common. She said an emergency could simply refer to the need to hire quality candidates, and that if a candidate was both a board member’s relative and the most qualified option, the candidate could still be accepted under the policy. She said the natural checks and balances of a seven-person school board stops one person from having too much sway, regardless of the situation.

“I’m comfortable with the decision that the board made with hiring this individual,” Whiteman said.

Jones and Myers agreed, saying that, unfortunately, it was especially difficult to get good candidates to move to and work in western Kansas. Jones said not having a large pool of quality applicants to pick from registered as an emergency for him.

Jean Johnson said she made an effort throughout Johnson’s hiring process to remove herself from situations in which her role as his mother would conflict with her duty as a board member. She said she recused herself from all board discussions about Johnson by leaving the room when they were occurring and didn’t attend some meetings that dealt directly with the process.

When the board voted to hire Johnson on Monday, she asked the board if she should abstain to avoid a conflict of interest. Jones said he told her that an abstained vote would read as a “no” vote on the record and advised that she go ahead and vote. She voted in favor of her son's hiring. An abstained vote does not read as a “no” on the record, but Jones said he was not aware of that at the time.

“Jean probably should have just voted no or left the room…” Jones said. “I just told her to vote yes. It’s probably my mistake. At that point of the evening, we were trying to get the meeting over.”

He said if there was an issue with the situation, the board will handle it at their next meeting.

Myers said he had not looked at the district’s nepotism policy at the time of the hire.

“I am absolutely confident that Jason is going to do an absolutely fabulous job for the kids and for the families…” Myers said. “I know what I’m looking for, and he’s got it.”

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.