Board member questions validity of vote to fire Laster

Published 11:58 pm Tuesday, October 23, 2007

VIDALIA — At least one Concordia Parish School Board member thinks the recent non-renewal of Superintendent Kerry Laster’s contract may be a violation of the board’s own policy.

During a complicated discussion over a board-imposed hiring freeze at a specially-called Tuesday meeting, Darlene Baker questioned whether a vote to fire Laster was valid.

Baker asked the question after fellow board member Fred Butcher — who made the original motion for the hiring freeze — said the motion meant that no one whose contract was set to expire would be replaced until the freeze was lifted.

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“I intentionally used the word ‘freeze,’” he said. “What I meant was that the person in that position would be frozen in that position.”

Baker asked if — because the freeze was passed in July and Laster’s contract was not set to expire until December — the board’s September vote not to renew Laster’s contract was invalid, based on Butcher’s motion.

Butcher said it was his interpretation that the non-renewal was valid because the board had already notified Laster that her contract was set to expire.

The discussions on the hiring freeze centered around a vote to clarify the existing hiring freeze policy since two employees’ contracts have recently expired.

Director of Federal Programs Julius Huhn’s contract was originally set to expire June 30 but the board extended it Oct. 19. Now, that date has passed but the hiring freeze means Huhn can’t go, or be replaced.

The situation was the same with Supervisor of Child Welfare and Attendance Howard Jackson’s contract. Jackson, who died Sept. 27, shortly after his contract expired, was a point of discussion. Jackson continued working past the date of contract’s expiration.

School Board President Gary Parnham said Jackson continued working because Parnham, Butcher and board member Mary Campbell told him to do whatever Laster said.

But Laster said she did not direct Jackson to continue working.

“I didn’t tell him anything,” Laster said. “He walked in and told me in front of two witnesses he was going to keep working.”

After his contract expired, Jackson worked on a day-to-day basis and was paid for his hours worked, not according to a contract. That system of work was one the board had discussed as a result of the hiring freeze.

The problem with anyone working on a day-to-day basis was that the board never officially approved allowing them to do so, Baker said.

Allowing Jackson to continue working was a mistake, board attorney Bob Hammonds said at Tuesday’s meeting.

“I have expressed to the superintendent I believe she made a mistake,” he said. “The question is, ‘Do two wrongs make a right?’”

The board decided they needed to clarify the hiring freeze before moving forward, but regardless, the board cannot legally appoint anyone to a certificated position such as Huhn’s without the recommendation of the superintendent.

“If my hands hadn’t been tied in July, we could have had that position filled and had some cross-training done,” Laster said. “We had interviews lined up, but they were cancelled once the freeze was passed.”

The problem with hiring on a day-to-day basis would be that the board would possibly be violating its own policy, Hammonds said.

“The problem is it doesn’t come with a timeline,” he said. “You could put someone in a position on a day-to-day basis for a year, and you’d essentially be circumventing your own policy. Even then, for the day-to-day hiring, it has to come at the recommendation of the superintendent.”

Another problem the board faces is that Huhn has previously retired from the federal programs director position, and they have a policy against rehiring retirees, Hammonds said.

The policy says if anyone in an administrative position retires, they will not be considered for any other administrative position, including the position they retired from, Hammonds said.

Butcher then made a motion that persons who are affected by the hiring freeze will be allowed to stay in their positions based on the recommendation of the superintendent.

The motion passed with Baker and board member Deanie Roberts voting against it, and the rest of the board voting for it.

Member Ricky Raven was not present.

Baker then made a motion that the board start advertising to fill the superintendent’s position.

“We need to get moving as quickly as possible,” she said. “I move we advertise with the minimum criteria set forth by (our guidelines) with the intention that personnel committee will set criteria for final selection.”

The motion died, however, when no board member seconded it.

In other business, the board voted to appoint two temporary administrators at Ridgecrest Elementary School.

Ridgecrest Principal Stephanie Blunschi has taken sick leave until April 23, at which time she will retire, Laster said.

Laster recommended that Vidalia Lower Elementary Administrative Assistant Nancy Anders be placed in the top administration position at the school, and that Charles Anderson from Vidalia Junior High School transfer to Ridgecrest to serve as administrative assistant and mathematics instructor.

The appointments would only last through the end of this school year, Director of Academics Paul Nelson said.

When board members asked Nelson what would happen to the positions at Vidalia Lower and Vidalia Junior High, he said there was no way other than hiring outside the school system that will not cause some restructuring within the parish.

“The problem is that during the school year it’s hard to find someone,” he said.

The board voted to go with Laster’s recommendation so the positions could be quickly filled.

The next regularly scheduled board meeting is Nov. 8.