School Board Members Schooled By Law Director

By Sally Absher

It is going to be a long seven months and three weeks. That is how much longer certain School Board Members will have to serve who won’t be seeking re-election. These “lame duck” BOE members seem to have made it their mission to cause as much disruption during Board meetings as they can. Their latest strategy seems to be to discredit the Law Department and undo the “consent decree” (aka the Order of Compromise).

About an hour into last Monday’s four-and-a-quarter hour work session meeting, the Board began discussion of Ms. Sanger’s agenda item regarding Knox County BOE Policy BCBI “Appeals to and Appearances Before the Board.” This policy was discussed extensively in 2014 after teachers started showing up en masse to speak.

Ms. Sanger suggested reducing the time allowed for public forum speeches from five minutes to three, and reducing the number of speakers who could speak at a given BOE meeting. She said, “You can pretty much say in three minutes what you can say in five minutes,” which is interesting, since it took Ms. Sanger considerably longer than three minutes to make her point. Doug Harris agreed that both the time and number of people who speak could be limited.

Sanger also spent considerable time lecturing on acceptable behavior for speakers and treating Board members with respect. Apparently that doesn’t apply to some lame duck BOE members, however, since they have exhibited derogatory, disrespectful and frankly embarrassing behavior towards other BOE members, the Law Director, and those in the audience and watching from home.

During the discussion of Policy GBG, “Non-tenure,” Ms. Sanger took her first swing at the Law Director, noting that Mr. Armstrong signed off that the August version of the policy met legal form, when in fact the policy contained an incorrect date. Why did she not bring it up at the time, rather than now? Is it because Sanger, along with Carson, is supporting Armstrong’s opponent in the upcoming election?

But the gloves came off during Ms. Carson’s Agenda item, “Discussion and possible action regarding legal representation.” Some Board members were unhappy with the Law Department’s recent opinion (backed up by the state Attorney General) that a school board may not legally extend the term of its four-year contract with the director of schools during the contract term, effectively extending the contract more than four years from the original date.

(See the Law Department’s memo to Chairman Harris here.)

Carson claims that the Board did not vote to extend the contract, the Board voted to renew the contract. But the AG’s opinion further explains it is the legislative intent that a four year superintendent contract can be renewed at the end of each four year period. The current contract expires in December 2017.

Carson said “There is not a Board in the state of Tennessee that follows the practice of awaiting the expiration of a Superintendent’s contract before they renegotiate a new one.”

Lynn Fugate made a glaring Freudian slip during the discussion, stating, “I voted to extend the Superintendent’s contract…” When Carson turned to glare at her, she quickly backtracked, saying, “uh…renew…RENEW…renegotiate…”

Carson said she wants the Board to pay for a second legal opinion. Armstrong said that is all well and good, but the Board must uphold the law. Under the Knox County Charter, there is one legal opinion, and the Law Director is in charge of all legal affairs of the county, giving advice and council to all elected officials.

Armstrong reminded the Board that he had presented them with a contract that met legal form. But the Board, during their special call meeting, chose not to accept that version.

Fugate was concerned that Knox County will not be competitive in hiring a new superintendent when every school board around us does contracts differently. Harris, Carson, and Deathridge made similar statements. Fugate defended previous contract renewals/extensions, saying that they were not advised they were doing anything wrong.

Armstrong said he never said or implied that this Board did anything intentionally illegal. The Board made their decision, and has total autonomy and authority over the hiring of the director of schools. But under the consent agreement, the Law Director has to advise the mayor on legal form.

Harris opined that the consent decree puts every law director in a position where they have a conflict of interest. He and his colleagues in the majority stated several times their desire to hire their own Board attorney.

Sanger then began cross-examining the Law Director. Armstrong pretty much “schooled” her on the facts, and did an excellent job of explaining the way our Home Rule Charter county government works.

Naturally, the gang of five rubber stampers are not happy that the Law Director is doing his job. They don’t really want to be bothered with the details and nuances of the County Charter, TCA statutes, and case law. It’s not fair that Knox County has to have a County Law Director who also gives guidance to the County Government. They see that as a conflict of interest. They want their own Board attorney.

These are the BOE members (plus Ms. Sanger) who in 2014 invited Chuck Cagle to speak at their Board Retreat. Cagle is Chairman of the education law practice group at Lewis, Thomason, King, and Waldrop. He represents over 70 school districts across the state, including Memphis, Rutherford County, and Bradley County. Interestingly, he has some rather concerning conflicts of interest as well.

In addition to representing over half the school districts I the state, Cagle’s lobbying clients include the Tennessee State Collaborative on Reform of Education (SCORE); Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS); Association of Independent and Municipal Schools (AIMS); and he is a registered lobbyist for Pearson Education. Yes, THAT Pearson.

Thanks, but we’ll keep our County Law Director. And if they are smart, the Board of Education will not seek to undo the Consent Decree (more properly known as the Order of Compromise). It is the law today. It cannot change without both bodies agreeing to go back to court, which isn’t likely.

 

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