Natchez-Adams School District Superintendent’s contract terminated

Published 12:05 am Wednesday, April 6, 2016

NATCHEZ — The Natchez-Adams School District’s board of trustees voted Tuesday to terminate the contract of its at-times controversial superintendent, Frederick Hill.

The 3-0 vote, taken after approximately an hour and 15 minutes of executive session, came just shy of two weeks after school board member Philip West first openly called for Hill’s resignation or termination.

West made the call at his first meeting as a sworn school board trustee, and made the motion to fire Hill at Tuesday’s meeting, citing the September federal jury finding that Hill had violated civil rights laws by discriminating against a former white principal by creating a hostile work environment and forcing her into retirement.

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West likewise cited the fifth standard of the Mississippi Educator’s Code of Ethics, which includes a specific provision against, “Discriminating against or coercing a colleague on the basis of race, religion, national origin, age, sex, disability or family status.”

Two school board members, Thelma Newsome and Benny Wright, were not present at Tuesday’s meeting. Both have in the past been considered sympathetic to Hill’s leadership.

Hill was likewise absent from the proceedings, but said Tuesday afternoon that the board has, “the power in their hands to do what they did, and I have to respect that.”

As to whether he will appeal the decision, Hill said it was, “not a question I can answer right now.”

In the event that the superintendent decides to appeal the decision, the board voted to hire legal counsel specifically for the appeal process. School board attorney Bruce Kuehnle said he did not know if the board would have to buy out Hill’s contract and that there was “no way to predict the legal ramifications.”

The trustees voted to appoint Fred T. Butcher to serve as interim superintendent, a move that Board President Amos James said was chosen in part because Butcher is familiar with the system.

Butcher served as the Natchez High School athletic director from 2008 to 2013, and as its principal through May 2014, when he abruptly resigned under Hill’s leadership.

Prior to working with the NASD, Butcher was the principal of Ferriday High School for 24 years, and currently serves on the Concordia Parish School Board.

The trustees announced Hill’s termination to school district employees through a written statement Tuesday and informed them of Butcher’s engagement as interim. The statement ended with the admonition that, “All district employees are encouraged to continue to fulfill their professional duties and to serve the children of Natchez and Adams County.”

When Hill was recruited to the NASD in 2012, he was hailed as an outsider who could bring fresh ideas to turn around a failing district, and school board members at the time pointed to his track record of improving student achievement as an assistant superintendent in the Tupelo Public School District.

By 2014, the school district was improving — moving from an “F” to a “D” rating under state standards — but Hill’s management style, which included reassigning sometimes popular administrators in potentially under-performing schools to different positions, was receiving significant blowback from the community. NHS alone had three principals in three years.

Three of Hill’s reassignments of administrators resulted in wrongful termination lawsuits against the school district, among them former Principal Cindy Idom’s case that resulted in the September 2015 judgment against the district.

During the Idom trial, former employees of the district testified they felt harassed and like they were not on the same team as the district’s central administration.

Since the Idom case ended, members of the Adams County Board of Supervisors and the Natchez Board of Aldermen — who appoint the school board members — have called for Hill’s resignation or removal, and in the case of the supervisors, members chose not to reappoint a school board member who had at times defended Hill, appointing West instead.

In the other wrongful lawsuits, Regina McCoy and Shannon Doughty, both former assistant principals at Natchez High School, filed lawsuits in April 2015 contending they were told their rehiring as assistant principals at NHS would be based on the results of school accountability scores after the 2013-2014 school year.

But both alleges they were later told they would not be rehired as administrators based on a prediction of a failing grade for NHS.

They were, however, offered teaching positions, which McCoy and Doughty separately contend equate to “a demotion with reduced employment terms and salary … and would not have been conducive towards advancement into administration positions and salary increases.”

When the test scores were released later that year, NHS had surpassed the prediction and improved. McCoy and Doughty have since found positions in other school districts.

Adding a wrinkle to Tuesday’s vote is that Doughty is the daughter of school board member Cynthia Smith, who was appointed in August 2014, after Doughty’s reassignment — and eventual resignation — but before her lawsuit was filed.

The most recent testing data shows that the district’s test scores fell below state averages, something Hill said at the time was because the district had adopted newer, tougher standards and was to be expected. Leaders with the Mississippi Department of Education said they expected similar results statewide.

Newsome and Wright could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Butcher likewise did not return a message seeking comment.

James said Assistant Superintendent Tanisha Smith — who was also found liable during the Idom case and whose termination West had previously called for — was not discussed during the Tuesday meeting.

The board is set to meet again at 9 a.m. today to discuss a personnel issue.