Hamilton County Chancellor W. Frank Brown III recently ruled that Susan Elliott, a former teacher at Hopewell Elementary School, be reinstated after taking issue with the results of a dismissal hearing that took place in January 2013.
During a special called meeting Wednesday night, school board members were tasked with the decision to either follow the chancellor’s order to reinstate Elliott as a tenured teacher in Bradley County, or appeal his ruling.
School board attorney Chris McCarty explained Brown’s ruling dictated that back pay and court costs be paid by the board, per state law.
He also said Elliott had to be reinstated as a teacher in Bradley County and that, while Brown recommended she not return to Hopewell, it was up to the school superintendent to determine where she will teach.
“It is not attached to a school,” McCarty said. “It is not tied to a subject.”
Though the director has the ability to decide where the teacher will teach, McCarty pointed out that it was the school board that had to decide whether or not it would appeal the decision.
He said he had spoken with Director of Schools Johnny McDaniel.
“My recommendation would actually be not to appeal,” McCarty said. “My reason for that would be the standard of review.”
McCarty said the chancellor’s recent decision was based on a standard of review allowed by state law that allowed him to look at the matter with “fresh eyes,” ignoring the results of the previous hearing.
However, he said the appeal process would be different in that Brown’s ruling would be given a “presumption of correctness,” which would be difficult to fight.
“Going into it, you’re the underdog,” McCarty said. “I don’t think it’s worth the risk, based on the standard.”
Board member Troy Weathers made a motion to reinstate Elliott to a Bradley County teaching position, though the attorney pointed out that not making a motion at all would have the same result — her ordered reinstatement.
“I vote that we accept the decision and reinstate Ms. Elliott,” Weathers said.
Board member Nicholas Lillios pointed out that such a motion was unnecessary because the default action would be to follow the ruling, but Weathers said he made the motion to show support for the teacher.
“I think we need to send a signal that we agree with that,” Weathers said.
Lillios then asked how much the school system would have to absorb into its recently passed budget if an appeal was not pursued.
McCarty said the expense would mostly be for back pay and legal fees, and he would have to give the board a total at a later date.
Board Chair Vicki Beaty questioned the accuracy of the turn of events mentioned in the chancellor’s report, but McCarty said the turn of events listed was the same — just worded differently.
Lillios proposed an amendment to the motion being considered that added the words “without bias,” which he said was to make sure Elliott’s reinstatement is handled fairly.
“I don’t want to see — because we’ve been through this — this teacher be mistreated by the system when she returns and relegated to the bowels of one of the schools or the back corner of the central office,” Lillios said. “I think this matter should be put to rest fully.”
He added he wanted the school board to set an example for the principal, teachers and other school staff she would be working with after being reinstated.
Weathers said he did not have a problem with the addition of those two words, but he did not see the need for them.
“I think we have professional teachers in our school system,” Weathers said.
Lillios commented that McDaniel should also refrain from sending out press releases that present the school system’s views in a “biased” way.
On Friday McDaniel sent out a press release that offered his comments on the chancellor’s ruling in favor of Elliott’s reinstatement. He indicated his views on the matter had not changed since the dismissal hearing.
“I stand by my original belief that Ms. Elliott’s actions on and off campus warranted her dismissal, a belief that was shared by an impartial hearing officer and a majority of the Bradley County Board of Education,” McDaniel wrote. “I did not take my recommendation to dismiss Ms. Elliott lightly, but I would make it again to ensure our students are provided with only professional and responsible teachers.”
Wednesday night, he defended the statements he made both during the litigation process and in recent days following Brown’s decision. McDaniel said he believed he had done what was “in the best interest of” the students of Bradley County.
McCarty again interjected to point out it is McDaniel who has the final say in where the teacher is placed, regardless of the board’s suggestion.
Board member Chris Turner said he agreed with Lillios’ comments and again mentioned the importance of the director not issuing any press releases that fell into the “biased” category.
“I encourage Mr. McDaniel to be very sensitive to the fact that not only are we obligated to teach our kids, but we are also obligated to be a fair and unbiased employer. When you look at this ruling, I interpret it as we didn’t do much correctly if every single element of the case against this teacher was reversed.
“I suggest we put energy into trying to heal the situation,” Turner said.
Turner added some Hopewell teachers have told him that being part of the appeals process was a stressful situation for them, and they told him they had been “forced” to sign affidavits.
Weathers said the teachers being made to sign them were news to him, and he wished he had known it.
The board approved the amendment and the amended version of the motion unanimously, with Beaty, Lillios, Turner, Charlie Rose and Weathers all voting in favor. Board members Christy Critchfield and Rodney Dillard were absent.
Elliott, who had been teaching at Hopewell for 16 years, was dismissed after investigations stemming from an arrest on assault charges. The charges were later dropped when Greg Grammer was arrested on charges of filing a false report.
Though her charges were later dismissed, she remained under investigation after McDaniel recommended the action, citing professional complaints against her during the Oct. 4, 2012, school board meeting.
“I recommend dismissal based on Ms. Elliott’s incompetence, neglect of duty and unprofessional conduct,” McDaniel said during the 2012 meeting. “Ms. Elliott’s actions clearly fall under definitions found at Tennessee Code Annotated 49-5-501.”
The school board approved a motion that said Elliott could be dismissed if the allegations were proven to be true.
Elliott’s dismissal hearing took place Jan. 30-31, 2013, and featured testimonies from fellow teachers. Impartial hearing officer Dale Conder Jr. made the hearing’s final decision on March 22.
McCarty said the next step the school system will have to take is to make an arrangement to outline the steps for Elliott being named a tenured teacher again.
He and McDaniel will be scheduling a meeting with Elliott and her attorney to discuss those matters and create a formal “accord of satisfaction,” a document outlining the next steps to be taken by each side.