(PUBLISHER’S NOTE: The following story is being reprinted this week because a portion of the text failed to ‘jump’ to an inside page in last week’s edition of the Eagle. As an update, at presstime, the Hancock Co. Board of Education was set to meet in a re-scheduled work session at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 13, and in a full board meeting at 7 p.m. to further discuss the search. Details of that meeting wil be posted Friday on the website of The Rogersville Review/Hancock Co. Eagle, and on the papers’ Facebook pages.)

SNEEDVILLE — When the 2019-20 school year begins, Hancock County will have a new Director of Schools, and the process that will lead to the selection of that person got underway last week with a Board of Education work session to review resumes from 10 candidates — including one from a former Hancock Co. Mayor, and one from the sitting Vice Chairman of the School Board — that were received by the noon, Jan. 30, 2020 deadline.

Current DOS is retiring

Tony Seal, who has served in that role for almost five years, advised the Board at its Dec. 5, 2019 meeting that, due to illness within his family, he would not be seeking an extension of his current two-year contract which expires on June 30, 2020.

At the board’s Jan. 2, meeting, it was decided to advertise the job vacancy and to accept resumes from qualified persons.

The BOE met at 6 p.m. on Jan. 30 to look at the resumes and to begin the process of going through the applications to determine which cadidates met or did not meet the board’s criteria for the Director of Schools position as outlined in a 2018 policy.

The matter was to be discussed again in a 6 p.m. work session and full board meeting on Feb. 6, but due to widespread flooding in the region, those meetings were postponed until the same times on Thursday, Feb. 13, in the office of Director of Schools.

BOE Chairman Jack Mullins said the decision was made in the interest of safety of those who might be planning to attend the meetings.

Meetings of elected governing boards are open to the public.

Qualifications

Although state law requires a Director of Schools to possess only a baccalaureate degree, local boards may set the educational, and other, criteria for employment at higher standards.

According to the BOE’s policy regarding “Qualifications and Duties of the Director of Schools”, adopted April 12, 2018, persons seeking the position in Hancock County must have:

1. A professional educator’s license;

2. A master’s degree in education with a preference for a doctorate degree;

3. Three years of successful experience in school administration; and,

4. Such other qualifications as the board deems desirable.

Applicants

Applications were received from the following candidates (in no particular order):

• Fain Edward Poston, Kyles Ford;

• David Dean Jones, Sneedville;

• Gregory Johnny Harrell, Bean Station;

• Byron A. Booker, Morristown;

• Michael D. Belcher, Sneedville;

• Charlotte Mullins, Sneedville;

• Grover Gregory Marion, Sneedville;

• Brian Greene, Thorn Hill;

• Ryan Mikes, Cordova; and,

• Joshua Derik Fleenor, Sneedville.

From that initial review, applicants who apparently appeared to meet all criteria to the BOE’s satisfaction included Greene, Mullins, Belcher, Booker, and Marion.

Applicants who did not appear to meet one or more of the four qualifications, included Poston, Fleenor, Mikes, Harrell, and Jones.

The application of Jones, who is a 30-year elected member of the BOE and is the board’s current Vice Chairman, as well as a former teacher in the school system, was called into question due to apparent conflicts with state law and BOE policies, as well as the fact that Jones does not possess a master’s degree nor does he have the stipulated three years of experience in school administration.

Jones did not attend the Jan. 30 meeting, but did attach to his application, copies of two State Attorneys General opinions from the 1980s which indicate that “there is no statutory or constitutional prohibition” against a sitting school board member from being named as Superintendent of Schools, findings that apparently are at odds with the HCBOE’s own policies and, according to a staff member with the Tennessee School Boards Association, state law.

The HCBOE’s policy entitled “Director of Schools Recruitment and Selection”, dated June 4, 2015, states:

“A board member may not apply for or in any other way be considered for the position of director of schools.”

The HCBOE’s policy entitled, “Board Member Conflict of Interest”, adopted April 9, 2015, also includes the provision that:

“A board member shall not be directly interested in any contract in which the Board may be interested.”

In an email dated Jan. 21, 2020, a copy of which was provided during the work session to board members and the Eagle, TSBA’s Director of Policy and Staff Attorney Jennifer White wrote the following:

“Regarding the board member who intends to apply for the position of director, state law and current board policy prevent board members from being considered for this (‘No member of any local board of education shall be eligible for election as a teacher or any other position under the board carrying with it any salary or compensation’, TCA 49-2-203(a)(1)(D); see also board policy 5.801 stating, ‘A board member may not apply for or in any other way be considered for the position of director of schools.’) As a result, there would not be an issue with declining to include that board member’s application with the others for consideration because he is not eligible to apply for the position under board policy 5.801.”

White also recommended that the BOE’s attorney be involved in putting together a contract for the new Director of Schools, whomever he or she may be, and that that is often a step that “boards want to have started before offering the position”.

“An enormous need”In opening the Jan. 30 work session, BOE Chair Jack Mullins said that choosing a new leader for the school system is one of the most important duties that the board of education has been called upon to perform.

“I, for one, find it very, very stressful and challenging to make a decision on this enormous need we have,” Mullins said of choosing a person to lead the system and its 900+ students.

Mullins reminded all that each candidate must be evaluated based on the qualifications outlined in board policy, and applicable state laws.

“If we find any applications that are not eligible to go forward, then that application stops here,” he said.

Second district BOE member Carl Reed said, in his opinion, the board needs to review the applications and “be ready to do what we need to do” at the next regular meeting of the board, which is Feb. 6 at 7 p.m.

“The deadline is over, and this is what we’ve got,” First District BOE member Dennis Holt said. “This a decision that will affect our kids’ well-being.”

“If we have 10 applicants, are we going to interview all 10 of them, or narrow it down?” Seventh District BOE member Freddie Mullins asked.

Jack Mullins said that he had looked at all of the applications.

“Some of them are not going to make it,” he said, based on what he said were obvious lacks of one qualification or another. “But you all will make that decision.”

Reed said that dates and times would need to be set for interviews.

The chairman said that, hopefully, the entire process can be completed by sometime in March so that a new director can be named.

But, members said, due to the importance of making the right decision on someone to lead the school system forward, that the board should take whatever time is needed toward that end.

Mullins said he would be agreeable for “all 10” of the applicants to “go across the hall with us on Feb. 6” for discussion in a regular board meeting, “if that is the wish of the board”, but added that, in his view, there is no need to even discuss some of the applicants who clearly do not meet the required qualifications.

“That’s the reason for this work session, to review applications and see if everyone has met the policy and ethics requirements, and, if so, which ones do we put forward in the board meeting,” he said.

“If someone is not qualified, they’re not qualified,” Freddie Mullins commented.

Interviews must be open to the publicFreddie Mullins asked if interviews with the applicants can be done in a board meeting or a work session.

According to state law, even meetings for “information gathering” and “fact-finding”, including “work sessions” are open to the public except for on-site inspections of any project or program.

The “open meetings” act also covers meetings in which board members are deliberating toward a decision on any matter, even if a vote is not to be taken at the meeting, and governing boards are required to give adequate public notice of all such meetings.

Interviews for public employment, when conducted by a governing body, must be open to the public.

Board members agreed that they could talk about, in the work session, what next steps to take, but that a vote on any decision would have to be made in a regular or special-called meeting.

The purpose of the Jan. 30 work session, Chairman Mullins reminded all, is to talk about which applicants have met all qualifications to be considered for the Director of Schools’ position.

Applications from those persons who appear to meet the criteria should be moved forward into the Feb. 6 board meeting for further consideration, Mullins said.

If individual BOE members have questions regarding any candidate’s qualifications, or lack of same, those may require more research, it was stated.

However, Chairman Mullins reiterated that the BOE’s policies and state law are not open for interpretation, and that candidates must meet the basic qualifications as stated.

Once approved applicants have been cleared to proceed to the interview phase, dates and times will be set for those candidates to meet with the board to each answer a pre-determined, standard list of questions which will be asked of all candidates.

“We need to listen to them very carefully and see who we think has the best vision for the future of our schools,” Chairman Mullins said. “If other groups want to hold meetings with the candidates, that is their choice, and they are welcome to do that.”

Mullins also reminded the board that, whomever the new Director of Schools is, he/she must pass a background check prior to their actual employment.

Board members agreed to come up with a list of questions that, in the interest of ethics and fairness, would not be shared publicly or with any candidate prior to the interviews, and that all candidates would be asked the same questions.

Members discussed narrowing the field down to two or three candidates at their upcoming Feb. 6 meeting, setting dates to interview those applicants over possibly a two-night period, in 30 to 45-minute segments per candidate, and then setting a deadline to name a new Director.

It was agreed that additional work sessions or special-called meetings may be necessary to get to that point.

Board members stated that they did not have a copy of a letter or list of qualifications that were sent to applicants, it was stated.

Holt asked if it would be appropriate to send each applicant, by certified U.S. Mail, a copy of the board’s current policy regarding qualifications for Director of Schools.

“Do we want someone to contact them and say, if you have more qualifications you need to get those to the board by certain date?” Freddie Mullins asked.

“If we do it for some we need to do it for all,” BOE member Jeff Stapleton commented.

“I will talk to the office tomorrow about putting a letter out to them with a copy of our policy, and asking if they have any updates that would affect their qualifications,” Chairman Mullins said.

However, he added, in his opinion, there is no need to pursue any of the applicants whose experience and qualifications, as listed in their resumes, clearly do not meet the requirements.

Board members also discussed their desire to sit down, at some point, as a board and establish a long-range plan of action for local schools.

Chairman Mullins commented that he has heard some “very disturbing” things concerning the school system’s status with the state, which makes it even more important that the “right person” be chosen, and that board members make a point to be more visible in all local schools.

“We must have a director who can have staff in place who can meet the benchmarks the state has set,” he said.

Stapleton voiced concerns about the length of a contract for a new director.

“We need to hand that to the person and say, we choose you for Director of Schools .. IF .. and then hold them accountable,” he said.

And, he added, those expectations must be realistic and must be specific to the system’s needs.

Chairman Mullins suggested a two-year contract with an option to extend if the board so chooses.

“But it will take a year for anyone who comes in to change much,” Stapleton said.

Mullins commented that Hancock County’s schools are currently ranked as “Focus” schools, or what are now called “Priority” schools.

Schools in jeopardy of possible state takeoverReward and Priority schools are two key designations under Tennessee’s newest school accountability system.

Reward status is the top distinction a school can earn. Reward schools are those that are improving overall student academic achievement and student growth for all students and for student groups, and they are identified annually.

Priority schools are identified at least every three years, and they are the schools most in need of support and improvement. Priority schools fall into the bottom five percent of schools in the state test scores over the past three years and have low graduation rates.

The Hancock Co. system in 2019 was designated as an “In Need of Improvement” district.

The state currently has a person on-site working with local schools to establish specific goals and a plan of action designed to boost academic achievement scores and student success, Chairman Mullins stated.

“I’m telling you, a timeline has already been established,” Mullins said. “We are a ‘Focus’ (‘Priority’) school system now. We’re a ‘One’. I want that person (the new Director), whoever it is, to work toward improving that. I want them to get our elementary school up to a ‘Three’ or ‘Four’, something other than a ‘One’. I want that person to follow the state’s criteria very carefully. I want them to listen very carefully to our supervisors as to what needs to be done in the schools. Our director needs to be telling them, ‘your job is this ... please do it. Our job is to find and hire that director, and if that person doesn’t do their job, then we need to come forward and make sure they understand where we are.”

Mullins said he has heard from a very reliable source that Hancock Co. Elementary “may drop another notch” next year.

At that point, he said, the State Dept. of Education could come in and take over the schools.

And as an added concern, Mullins added, the system could be facing a projected deficit of some $200,000 to $300,000 in the upcoming FY2020 budget.

“If we give a four-year contract, we are locked in,” Stapleton said. “I think we need to discuss that.”

“What I was suggesting was a four-year contract and look at it again in two years, and see if they have met these established benchmarks,” Freddie Mullins said.

Lines of open communication are vitalThe new director, Chairman Mullins said, must have a capable staff in place that is committed and ready to make improvements happen, and that board members must take an active role in “listening and speaking up” at any point anyone becomes aware that a problem exists.

There must also, he said, be a direct, constant and “honest” line of communication between the director to the principals, and from principals to teachers.

“When, exactly, did we become a ‘Focus’ school?” Holt asked.

“Last year,” Chairman Mullins said, adding that if a acceptable applicant is not found among those the board now has in hand, who isn’t up to that challenge, then it needs to look elsewhere.

“I like what you’re saying, Jack, and I appreciate you telling us,” Holt said. “You’re exactly right. We shouldn’t be in this situation. The communication part is important because from everyone I was listening to before, we ‘great’, but how do you get to be a ‘Focus’ school when you’re doing ‘great’? And now we’re complaining about being a ‘Focus’ school.”

“Politics and personal vendettas” have no place in the school system“Politics and personal vendettas” cannot be allowed to control what is best for Hancock County’s children, one board member said.

“Somebody who can motivate teachers, that’s the key,” Holt said, adding that he has heard lots of complaints regarding morale. “I’ve been led to believe the last couple of years that everything was great, great, great. Now, what I am being told is that people are afraid to talk.”

Chairman Mullins said that the new director must be someone of many talents, who can sit down and meet with teachers, listen to the problems they are facing, work on solutions, and recommend to the board whatever changes need to be made at the BOE level.

He also encouraged board members to spend time in each school, talking one-on-one with principals and teachers.

“We, as board members, need our administrators and teachers to know that we are 100% behind them,” he said. “We don’t need to be intimidating them. We need to let them know about rumors we hear and get the facts. I want them to know that I will listen to them all day long, but we have a Director of Schools and principals who will deal with their problems.”

And, he added, “everybody needs to know they are welcome to come to board meetings and ask questions”.

One board member said that, he used to visit schools but the last time he did, “I got a phone call before I got back to town telling me I had no business being there asking no kind of questions about anything”.

The board needs to focus on finding a “loving, caring person who has the heart enough to make hard decisions to move our school system forward and to motivate teachers, working together and not in fear,” one member said.

“The role we play here, gentlemen, is to find and hire that director,” Chairman Mullins agreed.

Fourth District BOE member Hugh Kyle Livesay, Jr, Clinch-Powell Representative, suggested that work sessions or special meetings may be in order after the interviews are complete to talk about the length of a contract and other matters.

Whoever is hired needs to be “hands on” involved in the budget process, one BOE member said, because the new director will have to live with that budget in the upcoming school year.

“I’d hate to put somebody in there and them have to work with somebody else’s budget,” he said. “I want them to be able to have input on their own budget.”

In the end, it was agreed to discuss, in the Feb. 6 board meeting, finalizing applications that meet the qualifications, set dates and times for interviews, and for board members to come up with a list of questions that will be asked of each applicant.