Jim Hinson, Shawnee Mission’s swaggering superintendent, vanished after parents spoke up. What happened?
In the spring of 2013, Jan Bombeck was wrapping up her 21st year as a librarian in the Shawnee Mission School District. She liked her job. But as a veteran employee and the mother of kids who had gone through high school in the district, she’d started to worry about Shawnee Mission’s direction.
For decades, Shawnee Mission had been the gold standard of public education in Johnson County — a community that, historically, had long treated its schools as a religion. Lately, though, that reputation seemed to be fading.
“I’d go to these conferences and hear people from around the state and other districts talking about new technology and iPads in the libraries, and I’d think, We don’t have any of that,” she says.
So when the Shawnee Mission Board of Education announced in March of that year that it had selected Jim Hinson, the charismatic and youthful-looking superintendent of schools in Independence, to replace retiring Superintendent Gene Johnson, Bombeck was pleased.
“I thought Gene Johnson was a nice guy, but I didn’t think we were moving forward as a district very quickly,” Bombeck says. “I was really glad when they announced they’d hired Hinson. You had a feeling he was going to get things going for us again.”
When she expressed that optimism to a friend from Independence, though, the friend “kind of just rolled her eyes,” Bombeck says. “She didn’t say too much. But you could tell that she thought something was off with him [Hinson].”
Still, Bombeck’s spirits were buoyed. On paper, Hinson looked like he was just the guy to give her district a much-needed injection of new blood. His career had been marked by rapid advancement and ambitious initiatives that had gotten lots of good press.
Two years later, Bombeck would come to understand what had given her friend pause. Hinson had made plenty of changes, all right. But she wanted little to do with them — or with him.
“I had, like, an overnight realization of, Something’s wrong with this man,” she says.
Jimmie Leon Hinson, whose parents were Assembly of God ministers, began his career in education in 1984 as a sixth-grade teacher in his hometown, Carthage, Missouri. He quickly moved up to elementary-school principal, then served as superintendent for two rural Missouri school districts, Greenfield and East Newton. By 2001, he was a deputy superintendent in the Independence School District, perfectly positioned to move into the top spot when Superintendent David Rock retired a year later.
As superintendent, Hinson quickly made a name for himself with bold moves. He overhauled the top ranks of the administration and transformed the traditional school food service into a sort of wellness program. He became a leader in area school circles, and he handled with aplomb the tricky business of annexing into the Independence School District several buildings formerly served by Kansas City Public Schools. When Hinson called for an “extreme school makeover” to spruce up the newly acquired schools, more than 2,500 volunteers showed up to help.
Almost from the beginning, though, some patrons and staffers noted in Hinson a streak of arbitrariness and a tendency toward standoffishness — complaints that would later be echoed in Shawnee Mission.
Kate Beam, an Independence parent, recalls her first encounter with Hinson, a meeting in which he was announcing budget-cutting moves at an elementary school. Beam asked if Hinson would consider giving parents a say in which services might be eliminated.
“He just kind of looked right at me, didn’t answer my question, and went right on,” Beam says.
Another parent, a man, rephrased her question. Hinson replied that he would be making the decisions.
Under Hinson’s leadership, the school board curbed its formerly freewheeling public-comment opportunities. Patrons were required to inform the board secretary in advance about the topic on which they wished to speak. Some never made it to the podium.
Teachers, too, felt a chill. “Teachers never really trusted him,” says Ira Anders, a former board member who is now a Missouri legislator. “They never felt they could speak freely. They always thought they needed to look over their shoulders.”
Perhaps the strangest aspect of Hinson’s tenure in Independence concerned his relationship with school board member Matt Mallinson, who also, until recently, was mayor of Sugar Creek. They socialized frequently and took out-of-town hunting trips. Anne Mallinson, Matt’s sister, recalls an instance when her brother took a trip to Europe and Hinson and his wife dropped by his house to mow the lawn and manicure the yard.
The bromance raised eyebrows when, early in 2011, the Independence School District purchased a 23-acre parcel of land in Sugar Creek as the site of a new elementary school. The land belonged to Mallinson’s father, John W. Mallinson Jr.; it had been in the Mallinson family for generations. The school district paid John Mallinson $937,500 — a sum that many people found eye-popping.
“This is a modest community. There are no $900,000 lots in Sugar Creek,” says Bill Haman, who lives near the school.
The market value of the property in 2010, as determined by the Jackson County assessor, was $142,919. It was zoned for agriculture and residential use. But an appraisal by Sam LeVota, of the politically connected Eastern Jackson County LeVota family, used comparable sales of property in Independence and eastern Kansas City as part of the rationale for valuing the property at $875,000. (Sam LeVota died in 2014.) Hinson told the Independence Examiner at the time that the parcel was the district’s best option because other properties under consideration would have involved eminent-domain issues and razing structures.
Records obtained from the Independence School District show that Matt Mallinson recused himself when the school board voted in December 2010 to authorize Hinson to negotiate the land purchase. The final contract also gave John Mallinson naming rights, and the property is now the site of the Abraham Mallinson Elementary School, named after the family patriarch who purchased the property in the 1860s.
John Mallinson died in January 2014. His former property has turned out to be problematic as a school site. Contractors had to scrape about 40 feet of soil off the top to level the site, Haman says. Erosion problems have sent dirt, wood chips and other materials into a tributary that flows into Sugar Creek. The school district has spent thousands of dollars on vegetation and other runoff-prevention measures. The problem is “better, but not fixed,” says Haman, a former chairman of the Sierra Club of Western Missouri.
In a different district, the somewhat incestuous land sale may have attracted more notice. But questions about the purchase, and the simmering discontent with Hinson’s autocratic style, surfed under the radar in working-class Independence. That would change in Shawnee Mission, with its core of engaged, affluent patrons.
Hinson spent his first months in his new job darting around Shawnee Mission on a “listening tour,” sipping coffee at farmers markets and PTA meetings while parents vented about all manner of perceived deficits. His style — bold, confident, magnetic — stood in contrast to the reserve of Johnson, who had presided over a gloomy period of attrition in his final years: state funding declining, classroom sizes growing, schools closing.
At the district’s annual foundation breakfast, in the fall of 2013, Hinson reported the results of his sweep. Time and again, he said, patrons had told him they loved the district’s tradition of excellent outcomes, involved parents and committed teachers. But, he said, Shawnee Mission was going to have to be prepared for changes if it wanted to be looked to as a model for public education in the future.
“We have a great tradition, but the world is changing,” Hinson told the crowd of nearly 1,200. “What has gotten us to this point might not get us to the next level where we want to be. Can we dream larger than we have ever dreamed?”
It didn’t take long for Hinson to start trying to make some dreams — just whose dreams, perhaps, is still uncertain — a reality. Six months after coming into the office, he rolled out a $20 million “one to one” technology initiative, guaranteeing that every student in the district would have his or her own Apple device. High schoolers got sleek new MacBook Airs. Every elementary-schooler — even kindergarteners — was handed an iPad.
He also wasted little time rejiggering the district’s high-level staff. Within a year, Johnson’s longtime deputy, Bob DiPierro, had signed a “retirement agreement” that provided him a cushy payout, provided he vacated his office. (He’s still being paid $1,625 a month in “consulting fees,” an arrangement that will continue through July 2018.) Two months before DiPierro and the district finalized his retirement agreement, Hinson hired former Belton Superintendent Kenny Southwick as his new deputy. He also recruited Overland Park Police Chief John Douglass to become the district’s first-ever director of safety and security and tasked him with fortifying aging school buildings.
To many, these and other top-level staffing changes looked like righteous moves, replacing a complacent administration with fresh faces who would implement modern technology and curriculum. Gone were ugly public fights about contraction and boundary changes. Here were steps to bring the district into the 21st century. Hinson’s action-packed agenda struck many parents and employees as welcome and necessary.
Inside school buildings, though, teachers and principals noticed a change in tone, and some were growing frustrated. Johnson and his predecessor and mentor, Marjorie Kaplan, had made a point of visiting classrooms across the district and learning teachers’ names. When Hinson took over, those visits largely stopped. Instead of expecting to see a district-level administrator at their schools, chatting with employees, teachers came to expect top-down decrees regarding classroom management. Several district employees report that teachers and principals who raised concerns about district policy would be ignored — or else would receive an unpleasant intervention from someone in the upper reaches of the administration. The message seemed to be “Get on board, or we’ll find someone who will.”
Still, Hinson remained widely popular in the community through his first years on the job. Patrons strongly approved the $223 million bond issue he championed, with more than 80 percent of voters supporting the initiative to fund reconstruction of aging elementary schools and the building of a new aquatic center. He hosted public question-and-answer sessions, dubbed “SuperChats,” throughout the year, generally leaving a good impression.
A couple of years in, though, cracks had started to show.
The one-to-one technology initiative had started out strong, but some teachers were raising concerns. They hadn’t received much training on incorporating the devices into their lesson plans. Kids were figuring out how to put games and other apps on them. Students were goofing off on their computers or tablets instead of paying attention to the lessons. Some elementary-schoolers had managed to access adult websites. The central office, classroom personnel found, was little help.
And it wasn’t just a sense of aimlessness with the big district initiatives. Personal interactions with Hinson left several employees with a bad taste.
Bombeck, the librarian, recalls the episode that caused her view of Hinson to shift sharply. In July 2015, ground started to shift near Ray Marsh Elementary, and engineers suggested that the school should vacate a wing of classrooms while work was under way to shore it up. One of the teachers who was going to have to relocate to a new space had been working on cleaning and decorating her classroom for a few days. When Hinson delivered the news that some teachers would have to switch classrooms, the teacher piped up that the situation was “ridiculous.” Hinson glared at her — “If looks could kill, she would have dropped dead right there,” Bombeck says — and proceeded to chew her out in front of the rest of the staff.
“She was probably being inappropriate,” Bombeck says. “But this is the guy who is making big bucks. I really expected that he would know how to handle a situation like that better. His reaction was not something that someone in that position should have.”
In the following months, Bombeck heard more stories about employees’ run-ins with the administration. Hinson’s seemingly thin skin was a contrast to Kaplan’s demeanor; that administrator, Bombeck recalls, had “always been really honest and open, in my opinion.”
“I lost all respect for him at that point,” she says.
In the fall of 2015, Hinson kept pushing hard for big changes to the way Shawnee Mission conducted itself. That November, he spent several thousand dollars to bring to town an education guru of dubious repute named Willard Daggett, who delivered a nearly three-hour presentation. Teachers who couldn’t attend the event in person were required to watch a broadcast of it streamed to high school auditoriums. In his lecture, Daggett argued that too many schools simply prepare kids for “more school,” and don’t challenge their students with classroom experiences that prepare them for the modern world.
With Daggett’s expensive presentation serving as a foundation, Hinson’s administrators began moving forward with major shifts in the way Shawnee Mission schools functioned. Some libraries were re-envisioned as “maker spaces” where the focus would move from books to building things. Librarians were rechristened “innovation specialists” — and new employees would no longer be required to have a library certification. The district announced it would be converting Apache Elementary — a Title I school with a high concentration of at-risk students — to an “innovative school” model that would stress “project-based learning” opportunities for kids. The details of these shifts, and how they would affect staff and students, were fuzzy, but some employees say they felt like they couldn’t ask questions.
Teachers and librarians weren’t the only ones with creeping doubts about Hinson’s vision and motivations. Public sentiment took a turn against the superintendent in the summer of 2016, when it came out that the school board had stealthily approved a 9.5-percent pay raise for him in June 2015 — a period when he had frequently decried the district’s financial situation amid protracted school-funding debate in Topeka. Combined with a raise he’d received in the summer of 2014, Hinson’s salary had jumped more than $36,000 in two years. He also received a $1,000-a-month car allowance and $24,000 a year in contribution to a tax-sheltered annuity. Teachers, meanwhile, had received only one step-and-column increase to their salary schedule since 2008 (though many had received other one-time stipends).
Small groups of district employees started an underground revolt. Anonymous Twitter accounts sprang up, amplifying rumors about Hinson’s personal life. Some teachers discouraged friends from applying for jobs in Shawnee Mission, citing a negative atmosphere.
The growing disconnect between Hinson and his constituents lurched into public view after last fall’s presidential election. Several Shawnee Mission teachers began wearing safety pins on their clothing as a sign of support for populations that had been the target of heated rhetoric during the campaign, including immigrants and members of the LGBT community. An employee at Belinder Elementary School sent a message from a work account, encouraging fellow staffers to adopt the practice. That email drew pushback from a Trump supporter, and the controversy reached Hinson’s office. He directed principals to tell their staffs that wearing safety pins would be forbidden.
That move, and the blunt way in which it was communicated, struck many parents and teachers as harsh. Why was an administration that had paid ample lip service to the perils of bullying going out of its way to quash a symbol meant to show support for the vulnerable? Soon, the district received a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union emphasizing the point.
“The district’s policy censoring teachers from making that statement, by wearing safety pins, suggests that the district does indeed believe it is ‘political’ or ‘controversial’ to say that the safety and success of all students is important,” read the letter, signed by ACLU of Kansas counsel Doug Bonney. “That sends a clear signal to students, parents, and members of the community that the district’s leadership does not regard the safety and success of all students as important.”
More than 150 people crowded the November school board meeting following word of the safety-pin debacle. Parents used the open forum to scold Hinson and the board for failing to show support for the disenfranchised. Afterward, Hinson sheepishly conceded that the district wouldn’t take any disciplinary action against teachers who violated the policy. It was just something, he said, “we’ve asked them not to do.”
Thus began a dreary season for Hinson.
A few weeks after the election, a group of district parents — wary of the negative press and the waning morale they’d been hearing about from teachers at their kids’ schools — decided to form a political action committee they called “Education First Shawnee Mission.” Frustrated by what they perceived as a lack of transparency by a board that rubber-stamped whatever Hinson put in front of it, the group vowed to shine a spotlight on the coming year’s board races. Those highly involved parents whom patrons had cited as one of the district’s strengths during Hinson’s listening tour were now ready to apply pressure against his administration.
The stresses didn’t stop there for Hinson. He had already alienated many of the state legislators who represented the district by supporting Gov. Sam Brownback’s “block grant” school-funding bill in 2015 — a scheme that locked in funding for two years, regardless of changing enrollment figures and increasing the number of at-risk and special-needs students. Many public-school advocates cried foul, saying the bill would not pass Supreme Court muster. They were right.
Hinson pointed out that Shawnee Mission had opposed the 1992 funding formula since its passage, noting — not incorrectly — that it shipped Johnson County tax dollars to schools out west. But public-education advocates whispered that Hinson was playing into conservatives’ plans to pit wealthy public school districts against less affluent ones in rural Kansas.
As the legislature faced its latest Supreme Court deadline this past spring, Hinson doubled down on his maverick approach. Instead of teaming up with the public-education community at large to build a unified front, he started cobbling together the outlines of his own funding approach. He held a press conference at the district administration building and laid out a school-funding concept that mirrored many aspects of the formula used in Missouri. It landed with a loud thud.
Melissa Rooker, the moderate Republican from Fairway who had emerged as one of the Kansas House’s foremost experts on school funding, immediately shredded the premise of Hinson’s approach. The Kansas School Superintendents’ Association issued a public statement opposing his plan. And it came out that Hinson had convened a meeting with a select group of area legislators to float his funding concept before he made it public. The panel he assembled had included only Republicans; conspicuously absent were Shawnee Mission–area Democrats who held positions on House education committees. Democrats were furious.
The mounting public criticism — from parents, teachers and elected officials — was a first for Hinson, whose career to that point had been a steady ascent dotted by promotions, praise and honors from civic groups.
A March 30 “SuperChat” question-and-answer session at Westridge Middle School had been on the books for months, and the library was packed with patrons, some of them itching to ask the embattled superintendent about school funding, safety pins and other matters. Instead of holding the floor for the full hour, as had been his custom, a haggard-looking Hinson delivered a short introduction and then unexpectedly handed the room over to three of his deputies. Assistant Superintendent Rick Atha spent half an hour doing his best to cast Hinson’s much-maligned funding approach as being in line with the ideas being embraced by Shawnee Mission–area legislators. Darren Dennis, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, told the crowd about the sharp rise in English language learners, and the increased resources needed to properly educate them.
Hinson stayed to one side, leaning against a bookshelf. He looked like a caged animal.
Three weeks later, principals got an urgent message calling them to the shining new Center for Academic Achievement, a $35 million centralized administration building that had been among the first major initiatives floated by Hinson after he arrived. There, the 54-year-old superintendent announced his retirement. He said he wanted to spend more time with his family, take care of his health — off-the-shelf reasons. The news spread fast. Some teachers cheered out loud when they read the email from the district office.
At the regularly scheduled board of education meeting five days later, Hinson was absent. And in that void, the complexion of the upcoming school board races changed immediately.
Donna Bysfield, the Shawnee Mission East–area board member since 1993, initially filed for re-election, then dropped out after two challengers stepped forward to take her on. Four challengers filed to vie for the at-large seat Cindy Neighbor has held since 1997. Three stepped forward to take on Shawnee Mission West incumbent Craig Denny, another 20-year board veteran. Shawnee Mission hadn’t held a school-board primary in more than a decade. The flood of candidates triggered two.
Hinson’s unexplained absence from the board meeting days after his resignation fueled a new round of gossip. Word was that Hinson had disappeared. He rarely was seen in district offices, and almost never in public venues. Southwick, his deputy, took over the day-to-day running of the district and was named interim superintendent for the coming year.
Perhaps to quell the chatter, Hinson re-emerged at the May board meeting, looking notably deflated. He usually had an assertive, confident demeanor at the meetings. Instead, his shoulders slumped as he spoke softly into the microphone. When one patron approached the podium and suggested that the next superintendent’s contract have a “moral turpitude” clause in it, Hinson kept his gaze fixed straight down at the desk.
Hinson skipped the June board meeting, his absence made all the more conspicuous when one board member felt compelled to deliver de rigueur words of thanks for the man’s service and contributions — essentially addressed to an empty chair. Meanwhile, the board races started to heat up, and the challengers all seemed to strike the same note: Morale among district staff is low, and changing it — getting teachers to be proud again that they work for Shawnee Mission — should be a top priority.
“The culture in our district is set by the board,” Christopher White, a former district project supervisor who is challenging Denny for the West seat, said at a forum. “The board needs to promote a culture of respect, understanding and appreciation for the core of our district, which is the teachers. … And for the past several years, everybody, from what I’ve heard, doesn’t feel like that is the case.”
The board hadn’t reined in Hinson’s autocratic tendencies, some of the challengers argued.
It was time for the incumbents to go. The district needed fresh perspectives to select Hinson’s full-time replacement.
For a district that had seen remarkably stable leadership for more than two decades, this flux was a shock. And the man who had set it off had gone from confident, ambitious leader to invisible man in a matter of months. Because of a botched school-finance formula? Safety pins?
Hinson isn’t saying.
In response to an inquiry from The Pitch about his retirement, he responded with a text message. “It is half-time in my life,” he wrote. “It is time to rest, and wait and see what the second half has in store. I will be forever grateful to the wonderful people of Independence and Shawnee Mission.”
Their gratitude to him seems already to have expired.
Jay Senter is editor and publisher of The Shawnee Mission Post; subscribe at shawneemissionpost.com. This story appears in The Pitch‘s August issue.