By MARINA WATERS
There wasn’t an empty seat in the house as the Washington County Board of Education addressed the appeal from Gray Elementary School teacher Jennifer Collins who was dismissed for insubordination and unprofessional conduct following complaints about physical contact with students.
But after the school board decided in a narrow 5-4 vote to allow Collins to return to the school system for the 2017-2018 school year, nearly three rows of chairs set empty as a group of principals, teachers and community members stormed from the conference room.
“She’s a 27-year veteran teacher who, until recently, had an impeccable record,” Collin’s representation and Tennessee Education Association attorney, John Allen, said before he cited inconsistent documentation as a factor in the case. “Discipline should be progressive and it should be corrective. The goal should be to get an employee to understand and follow the rules not to run them out the door. So documenting at the time an incident happens leads to better decision making.”
Board member Todd Ganger made a motion for the board to sustain its decision of termination of the tenured teacher who had received student and parent complaints of kissing and rubbing male students’ foreheads. The motion failed in a 5-4 vote.
However Mary Beth Dellinger made a motion that Collins be reinstated for the following school year without any further penalties. The motion passed 5-4 with David Hammond, Mary Beth Dellinger, Annette Buchanan, Phillip McLain and Keith Ervin voting for the motion. Clarence Mabe, Mike Masters, Todd Ganger and Jack Leonard voted against the motion.
Collins had the option of arguing why the decision should be modified or reversed either in person or by counsel. Tennessee Code Annotated 49-5-512 (which is the state procedure in the suspension or dismissal of a tenured teacher) also states that the school board could choose to sustain the decision of the impartial hearing officer, send the record back to add additional evidence, revise the penalty or reverse the decision.
The Washington County Director of Schools, Kimber Halliburton issued her recommendation of termination to the school board while also stating that impartial hearing officer Randy M. Kennedy made a recommendation of termination in January following the a two-day December hearing. Meanwhile, Ganger and Mabe also reminded the board that Collins did not follow a directive from her principal when she was asked to refrain from physical contact with students.
“My problem is when a person is asked to do something—especially an employee—and they don’t respond,” Mabe said. “In my place of business, if you do that, you don’t work for me.”
Hammond said children’s services and law enforcement found nothing wrong during the December hearing. Dellinger also cited the tenured teacher’s past record as a factor in her decision.
“With all the information I had already known about this case, I wanted to read the transcript with an open mind. And I read it word-for-word,” Dellinger said. “I found nothing that would warrant this teacher to lose her job. Good past record is impressive. Mrs. Collins has been suspended without pay since October. In my opinion, she’s already been punished and should be reinstated.”
Halliburton also expressed concern for the community—including students and principals—after many audience members had left the room upon the decision.
“This decision tells me that adults come first. It is our charge in this community to create, preserve and protect a safe environment conducive to learning,” Halliburton said. “I’m concerned that students will be reluctant to come to their principal to report a teacher is mistreating them or violating them. This is a very difficult thing for me to say.”
Leonard, who is also the BOE chairman, took the time after the decision to ask that the board come together and remember their mission.
“We have to work as one. If we are out there in disagreement with each other as confused board and a messed up board, we’re not helping our children at all. And that’s why we’re here,” Leonard said. “Washington County is too important. And our children are too important and this school system is too important for us not to move forward. We have to move forward because of our responsibility to our children, to our faculties, to our administrators, to our parents and to our children.”
During Halliburton’s portion of the roundtable discussion following the meeting, the director of schools recalled speaking to the board about making decisions related to agenda items such as the appeal—and how stakeholders in the community could perceive the decision.
“When I was interviewed for this job and sat right down there, one of the questions was, ‘How would you deal with ineffective employees?’ And what the members of this board specifically said is that that’s the thing they appreciate about me is that I did have the courage to deal with ineffective employees and I had the know-how to deal with that,” Halliburton said.
“The county commission is pouring money at us. Pouring money at us. And they say to us countless times that they want accountability in this school district. And you sent the county commission a clear, clear message that accountability does not exist in this county. And you didn’t support me.”