Morris’ contract not renewed

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 10, 2011

NATCHEZ — The Natchez-Adams School Board voted at its Jan. 20 meeting not to renew Superintendent Anthony Morris’ contract.

The contract expires June 30 of this year.

The decision came from a motion made by school board member Dr. Benny Wright with the support of Thelma Newsome, Harold Barnett and David Troutman. Board member Dale Steckler voted against the non-renewal.

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The board members confirmed last week that a decision had been made during executive session but would not share the outcome.

Minutes from the executive session were delivered to The Democrat Wednesday in response to a written request seeking them prior to the standard public release 30 days after the vote was taken.

Official minutes become public record after 30 days, but the Freedom of Information Act specifies that “draft minutes” are to be considered public immediately upon request.

According to the draft minutes, the board directed its attorney Bruce Kuehnle, after the vote, to give written notice of its decision to Morris in order to provide him with the opportunity to present evidence in a hearing debating the validity of the board’s decision.

Kuehnle said Wednesday Morris has asked for a hearing, to which he is entitled.

Morris can decide if the hearing is conducted publicly, Kuehnle said.

“The board has made a preliminary decision, and (Morris) is allowed to demonstrate to the board (the decision) is erroneous and convince board to change it,” Kuehnle said.

A hearing must be set within 30 days of the board’s decision, but the superintendent has the right to delay the hearing, Kuehnle said.

The board will likely announce the date of the hearing at today’s board meeting, he said.

The board will appoint a hearing officer to preside at the hearing to ensure each side has a fair opportunity to present evidence.

The hearing officer is usually someone familiar with school procedure laws, such as a school board attorney in another district, Kuehnle said.

Ultimately, the board will make the final determination, he said.

Wright made a unanimously supported motion following the non-renewal decision to employ Jim Keith, a Jackson lawyer who specializes in education, as its attorney to represent the school district’s case in the event that Morris requests a hearing on the determination.

Morris did not return phone calls or e-mails Wednesday.

Board president Harold Barnett said he cannot comment on board’s decision or any discussion that took place in executive session by Mississippi law.

“It is confidential personnel matters,” Barnett said.

Steckler said Wednesday she preferred not to comment at the present time.

Troutman said he could only offer the same statement he made last week.

“The board has taken action in its best understanding in the best interest of the students,” Troutman said.

Messages for Wright and Newsome Wednesday went unreturned.

Morris is in his eighth year as superintendent in Natchez. Before taking the Natchez job, Morris was director of personnel at South Panola High School. He was principal of Natchez High from 1994 to 1997.

During his tenure, Morris has led the district in a grade-level reorganization after a 15-year-old desegregation court order was lifted. He was named the 2009 Mississippi Superintendent of the Year.

Recently, Morris was vocal about the school board’s decision to cut $300,000 from the district’s budget to avoid a higher tax increase, saying further cuts were hurting the children.