Silver Lining in a Funnel Cloud: Greed, Corruption, and the Joplin Tornado
Author: Randy Turner

Chapter 4
Silver Lining in a Funnel Cloud

It wasn’t only Mark Rohr who was looking out at the apocalyptic area where the tornado had cut its deadly path and picturing a bigger and better future.

It was only hours after the tornado that Joplin R-8 Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorfer started talking about what she termed as “the silver lining in a funnel cloud.”

That Besendorfer could use that phrase over and over again over the next couple of years and not grasp the insensitivity of it to those who had suffered loss of home, family, and friends, was not surprising. Tact was never Angie Besendorfer’s strong suit.

As she spoke with some of her closest colleagues in the administration office, they remember her as being almost giddy with the possibilities of what they could do now that Mother Nature had intervened.

For those who had known Besendorfer for a long time, her path to leadership was charted when she was still attending schools instead of running them. She was the head cheerleader who micromanaged the choreography of halftime routines down to the minutest detail, the girl who always decided who would stand where when pictures were taken, even if they were being taken by professional photographers.

Though she was a cheerleader through her junior high school and high school years in Lamar, Missouri, the birthplace of President Harry S Truman, she achieved her greatest successes in the high school’s Future Farmers of America, where she honed her leadership skills, developing even at that young age a killer instinct when it came to rolling over any opposition.

Her educational career was just as successful and marked by the same tendencies. She spent only a few years as an elementary teacher, moving quickly into jobs with the state department and in administration, first as a principal, and then as the superintendent of the Reeds Spring School District, near Branson.

Her controversial three-year tenure at Reeds Spring was marked by problems with teachers who did not want to do things exactly the way she wanted them done. She was never one to discuss disagreements; they simply had to cease to exist or she would make sure the ones who dared to speak against her would never do so again.

Besendorfer’s board of education was fully behind her even as scores of teachers, many of whom had been in the district for years, began to resign and some were forced to quit.

Two events brought an end to Besendorfer’s reign at Reeds Spring. Her husband, Ron Besendorfer, a physical education instructor and coach in the district, ran into some disciplinary problems and Angie Besendorfer was alleged to have helped her husband by having pointed discussions with possible witnesses against him. The coach later resigned and never returned to teaching.

More importantly, Angie Besendorfer picked on the wrong target when she took advantage of a flare up at the high school to fire a teacher who had been outspoken in his opposition to many of the changes she brought to the district.

When teacher Mike Collins broke up a situation in which two high school students were bullying a developmentally disabled child, he used strong profanity, including the “F” word. That was enough for Besendorfer to suspend Collins, a previous district Teacher of the Year.

When she did not back down and forced Collins out, an outraged citizenry elected three board members whose sole stated purpose was to fire Besendorfer. At that time, Besendorfer already had a contract for the 2007-2008 school year with a raise to $112,000 annually, but she could see what was going to happen. She still had a slim majority of board members who supported her after the election, but two more seats would be up for grabs in April 2008.

Besendorfer always knew when it was time to leave. And the destination she decided on was Joplin. (Shortly after Besendorfer left, Mike Collins was rehired at Reeds Spring.)

Joplin had an assistant superintendent position open and though some of the people he contacted when checking out Besendorfer warned him about her, she was the one Superintendent Jim Simpson wanted. “She knows her stuff,” Simpson told a concerned board member. “I can keep her under control.”

And for one year, that was exactly what Simpson did. There were times when Besendorfer resorted to the tactics that had led her to the top of the heap both in school and in her professional life, but Simpson was there to rein her in.

Simpson and Besendorfer worked together only one year. Early in the second semester of the 2007-2008 school year, Simpson announced he had been hired as the superintendent of the Lindbergh school district near St. Louis, a job which would pay him over $50,000 a year more than he had been making in Joplin.

With Simpson gone, Besendorfer expected the superintendent job would be hers, but the R-8 Board of Education had a different plan. After interviewing the finalists, the board opted to bring in the little-known superintendent of the Eldon school district near Jefferson City, C. J. Huff. The reason, board members said, was because of Huff’s success with improving the graduation rate in Eldon.

Huff’s record was not as solid in the area of academics. Eldon’s MAP (Missouri Assessment Program) and ACT scores had fallen steadily during his four years in charge, but his success at raising Eldon’s graduation rate by 10 percent was his main selling point.

Though people from Eldon were interviewed during the hiring process, apparently they were not the same ones who talked to Joplin Globe reporter Joe Hadsall, who looked into Huff’s time in Eldon as the new superintendent was preparing to take the reins in Joplin.

“But Huff is not without his detractors, some of whom say he led with a “my-way-or-the-highway” mentality and stepped on toes to make improvements. Some accuse him of spending money irresponsibly and replacing experienced, established personnel with younger, greener candidates.”

What Hadsall did not write, perhaps it was not told to him, was that Huff was uncomfortable around those with experience and wisdom, the people who might make suggestions that were counter to the things he was proposing.

Using a tool he would hone to perfection in Joplin, Huff found people who served as scapegoats and allowed them to become the object of the teachers’ wrath, while he continued to smile and share lunches with Eldon’s well-to-do and powerful.

When Huff was selected for the Joplin post, at a salary considerably higher than Jim Simpson’s since the Missouri School Boards Association committee that helped the Board of Education with its search insisted  they could not hire a good superintendent unless they drastically increased the salary, Angie Besendorfer was not thrilled, to put it mildly.

Those who worked in the Joplin R-8 Administration Building at that time still tell stories of the profanity-laced tantrum they say Besendorfer threw when she learned C. J. Huff was going to be her boss.

Most of those administration employees thought they had probably seen the last of Besendorfer. Surely, C. J. Huff would not keep her around once he learned about her reaction.

No one could have predicted the role that Besendorfer would eventually play in the school district and in its recovery from the tornado.

 

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