By MARINA WATERS
The news of Kimber Halliburton’s resignation as the Washington County Director of Schools shook the community last month, but the Washington County Board of Education’s called meeting to discuss the budget, accept her resignation and name an interim director only proved to be an aftershock of tense conversation.
And it all started with questions from board members about conversations leading up to the public meeting.
After Board member Phillip McLain nominated the school system’s director of secondary education, Bill Flanary, for the interim spot, the BOE unanimously voted to name Flanary to the temporary position. School board member Mike Masters asked Flanary if he had been approached by any board members regarding the interim position. Flanary said a board member asked him a few weeks prior to the meeting if the interim position were to come available, would he accept it. Board member Todd Ganger pointed out that, according to that time frame, that conversation came before Halliburton had resigned.
After Ganger asked which board member approached Flanary, board member Phillip McLain admitted to the conversation.
“The reason I did it was Mrs. Halliburton had told us about the job opportunity in Alabama,” McLain said. “My question to him was in an iffy situation, anticipating her doing exactly what she did. That’s all I have to say.”
Halliburton was announced as a finalist for a position as the Alabama State Superintendent of Education in April. Then on May 23, the day she tendered her resignation in Washington County, Halliburton accepted the director of schools position in Madison County, Mississippi.
Before Halliburton’s departure, she faced the suspension and eventual firing of Gerald Sensabaugh as the David Crockett High School football coach which ended in a pending lawsuit. Multiple bus accidents and the firing of the school system’s transportation supervisor and a split BOE that, after a year of discussions, is currently still in gridlock over a Jonesborough School project design were other controversial events that she faced during her tenure with the school system.
But what concerned some board members in the wake of Halliburton’s resignation was board member transparency and a lack of public discussion on matters such as the director’s position.
“Superintendents come and they go. That’s a part of life,” school board member Clarence Mabe said. “But the way this was handled, I’m not satisfied with at all. Four or five board members called our lawyer, and without coming to the board or even talking to the chairman. I found out about it when one of the mayors told me what y’all were doing. And then y’all write a letter to the superintendent telling her she can resign when we don’t know a thing about it and it hasn’t been brought to us? Something is wrong with that picture men and ladies.”
The board’s attorney, Scott Bennett, who was hired in December of 2017 in a 5-4 vote from the board, said during the meeting that he drafted a letter that was sent to Halliburton before her resignation. He also said it wasn’t a letter calling for her resignation and did not contain an ultimatum.
“She indicated to me that she had an attorney and her primary concern was that transition being smooth. (Her attorney’s) suggestion to me was that I draft something that would make sense … It would be a simple way to explain how she got to where she is, why she was transitioning. It wasn’t a letter asking her to resign. Her lawyer asked me to put pen to paper.”
Ganger also asked Bennett if he had board members contacting him asking about dismissing Halliburton.
Bennett said each board member was entitled to know that information, but that he could not discuss the information during a public meeting. Ganger requested that they waive that privilege, but Bennett explained that once that privilege is waived, it’s off for any future topic and that there was no selective waiver.
“I did not have any conversations with board members where I was currying votes if that’s what you’re asking or suggesting. That’s not my job,” Bennett said. “What I want to make clear is that my role to assist you as a board member and your colleagues as board members is if you ask me a question about ‘what does the contract say?’ or ‘what does the law say?’, I’m going to answer your question because it helps you.
“At the point and time I think that it’s more than a board member or two asking me to interpret the contract, I’m going to pick up the phone and call the chairman, which is what I did.”
School board member and BOE Chairman Jack Leonard said Bennett called him and said he had “the fifth call.” Bennett said he recalled that conversation differently, saying he called the chairman to let him know the director’s contract appeared to be something board members wanted to put on the agenda. Later, board member Keith Ervin said he did in fact call Bennett about the director.
“Since everybody’s talking about me being the fifth vote, damn right I’m the fifth vote,” Ervin said. “And I’m going to tell you something, I’m tired of it. I am tired of it. I’ve had enough. That’s exactly what I told Scott Bennett. If the vote come out that I was going to move her or that she resigned, that’s fine. I’m done. I’m ready to do something.”
Though he said he didn’t talk to five board members regarding transferring Halliburton into another position within the school system, Bennett did say he interpreted the director’s contract which he found to allow a transfer in positions within the system.
“It’s an extremely common provision in a director’s contract to waive transfers,” Bennett said. “Your contract, for whatever reason, did not waive a transfer rights regarding Mrs. Halliburton.
“To answer your questions, I didn’t carry any water. As I’ve told people time and again, five people can make the front door the back door. And it’s up to you, the board, to decide what to do with the information I give.”
Some board members, however, felt differently.
“Don’t you think the right way was to discuss this with the board?,” Mabe said. “You don’t think they were using you to carry water? Why do you think they hired you six months ago? You carried a whole bucket of water.”
Bennett said there were no negotiations regarding the director’s departure. He did, however, mention what he called “the black out date” which, according to Tennessee Code Annotated 49-2-203-(a)(14)(A), states that no school board may either terminate a director without cause or enter into a contract with the superintendent 45 days before a general school board election or 30 days following the election.
“We’re getting into areas where I gave legal advice, but I can answer this; there’s a period of time in which sitting boards cannot make changes to a sitting director’s contract and I think every superintendent in the state of Tennessee knows what that date is,” Bennett said. “Everyone was aware that the deadline for notifying the public of any changes to the agenda regarding a change in the director was 15 days prior to your board meeting.”
Halliburton tendered her resignation 15 days before the next regularly scheduled school board meeting set for Thursday, June 7.
With an interim director sitting in the vacant seat come the meeting’s end and a search for a new director up ahead, multiple board members asked why the discussion wasn’t brought up in a public meeting, thus calling for more transparency from the board.
“When you have board members contacting you about removing our director from her position — I actually had to find out through the public,” Ganger said. “That’s the first I heard of it. I’ve got a problem with that. To me, it’s sneaking around. We’ve got board members going outside of their scope of duties and running around to try to get something done. It needs to be addressed. It needs to be fixed because we’ve got a lot of that going on.”
The next school board meeting will be held on Thursday, June 7 at 6:30 p.m. at the Washington County Department of Education’s central office, located at 405 W College St., Jonesborough.