Laws change NASD procedures

Published 12:13 am Friday, July 27, 2012

NATCHEZ — Last year, the Natchez-Adams County public schools spent an estimated $80,000 to conduct a six-day hearing, which spanned more than four months.

“That’s how much taxpayer money went into that hearing,” Natchez-Adams School Board President Wayne Barnett said.

Former NASD superintendent Anthony Morris requested the hearing when the school board voted not to renew his contract.

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It was Morris’ legal right to do request the hearing, and the employment of the district’s top spot wasn’t resolved until eight months after the board’s initial decision on Jan. 20, 2011.

On Aug. 12, 2011, the board voted — unsurprisingly, to most — to stick with their decision for nonrenewal.

But now, since the Mississippi legislature passed a bill introducing an amendment to laws about school employee rights, superintendents in Mississippi will not get that same chance Morris did to have a hearing.

Senate Bill 2176 amends state statutes about school employee rights by taking away a superintendent’s right to a hearing upon contract nonrenewal.

“I think that’s a good law,” Barnett said. “That’s a lot of money (that) could be spent for schools.”

In addition to the cost of paying lawyers, a court officer and a court reporter, the hearing also sucked up personnel resources that had to attend as witnesses, or prepare testimony for both sides, Barnett said.

All other certified employees in the district whose contracts are not renewed still have the right to request a hearing.

NASD Board Attorney Bruce Kuehnle said it makes sense for other certified employees to request a hearing in front of the board, because the employee would be appealing the superintendent’s decision. In that instance, the board then reviews the superintendent’s decision during a hearing and listens to the employee’s side of the story to verify whether reasons for nonrenewal were based on a valid educational reason or noncompliance with school district personnel policies.

But if the superintendent requests a hearing, the board members — in the past — would be hearing an appeal of their own decision since the superintendent is the only position for which the board has authority to hire, fire or choose not to renew a contract.

Barnett said besides the money, and perhaps more importantly than the money, the new amendment helps clear the way to expedite the replacement of a superintendent.

“The bottom line is this past year with the interim superintendent — we had a good one — but it would have been better to hire a permanent superintendent last August,” Barnett said.

Because the status of Morris’s employment was unresolved until the hearing ended, the board was unable to begin searching for a potential replacement. As a result, former interim superintendent Joyce Johnson headed the district for an entire year.

Current NASD Superintendent Frederick Hill said he has no problem with the change in law, which revokes his right to request a hearing if the board decides against renewing his contract when it expires in 2016.

“If my performance is not up to par, I truly feel someone else should be doing something for the district,” Hill said.

Additionally, House Bill 477 — another state bill recently signed into law — will require the district to perform an annual evaluation of Hill and any future superintendents using a uniform system implemented statewide and approved by the Mississippi School Board Association.

Barnett said the district already had a policy requiring an evaluation of the superintendent each year, but now the evaluation will be the same system across the board in each district.

Hill said the evaluation system focuses more on student performance.

“Personally, (I believe) if I can’t grow students during a specific amount of time or create an atmosphere or culture to grow students, then (I should be held accountable),” Hill said.

A similar evaluation system for principals will go into effect statewide during the 2013-2014 school year, but Hill volunteered NASD to participate in a pilot program for this school year. Principals recently attended a training session in Madison to learn how to implement the new evaluation system.

“It’s a good transition process,” Hill said of using the new principal evaluations a year early.

“It’s just a sign of times in the age of accountability,” Hill said.