Director of Schools Janet Graham will not get a new contract following a 5-4 vote of the Cumberland County Board of Education Thursday.

She will continue to serve in the school system’s top position through June 30, 2020. The board will meet in January to discuss how it will proceed with a search for a new director.

The vote came after a flurry of discussions, motions and votes — first, a motion to remove the contract from the agenda, then a motion for a two-year contract, then a motion to table action until a work session in January.

Tom Netherton, 6th District representative, voted to table further action on the contract but asked to recall his vote before the board moved on to its next item of business.

“If I change my vote, that means we have to end it tonight,” he said. “I want to change my vote.”

That set up a failed motion on a one-year contract, another effort to move discussion to January and, finally, a motion to not renew the contract.

“To exhaust all options, I’ll move that we do not renew the contract,” Tony Brock, 5th District representative, said. 

The motion was supported by Jim Inman, 1st District representative.

The motion passed with Inman and Brock voting in favor, joined by Shirley Parris, 3rd District representative; Becky Hamby, 7th District representative; and Stace Karge, 9th District representative. Voting against were Netherton; Josh Stone, 4th District representative; Rob Safdie, 2nd District representative; and Teresa Boston, 8th District representative. 

Graham told the Chronicle she was disappointed by the outcome of the contract discussions. 

“I have done everything asked of me and more, and will continue to do so,” she said in a statement. “I stay in tune with the staff of all our schools and have a good working relationship with them.”

She pointed to her annual evaluation, completed in April, in which the board scored her 4.1 out of 5 overall, and the Tennessee Educator Survey — see related story in this edition.

A score of 1 means “never meets expectations” and a score of 5 is “exceeds expectations. A 3 marks usually meets expectations. The evaluation asks the board to rate their opinion of Graham’s performance on 36 statements covering areas of board relationship, community relationships, staff and personnel relationships, educational leadership, business and finance and strategic planning skills. 

Four schools also achieved Reward School status this past year and made gains in academic achievement and student academic growth, which Graham said showed the school system is “on a good trajectory to continue to make our community proud.”

“I will continue to promote positivity and excellence through the end of my term, whatever that date might be,” she said. “My desire to serve the staff and students of this district remains strong and I believe it is important to continue to show progress in all our endeavors.”

Graham’s contract was first reviewed by the board’s contract committee in July. At that meeting, the two members present of the three-member committee, agreed to forward the contract to the full board for consideration. But the contract was not placed on the agenda until the October meeting.

There, a motion to offer a three-year contract failed 5-4. A motion was approved to send the contract back to the contract committee for further review. The board also voted 5-3 not to conduct a survey of the approximately 1,200 teachers, administrators and staff of the school system to gauge employee morale. 

In November, the contract committee returned the contract to the full board for further action following some changes to the verbiage following a 3-1 vote of the committee.

The evaluation committee also worked to develop a seven-question survey for staff morale and gather information on how to deliver that to the faculty and staff of the school system and collect the results. See the accompanying story for more information on the survey.

The contract was the first item of business on the December agenda, as required by law. 

Inman attempted to remove the contract from the agenda, saying the board needed to consider the proposed climate survey before taking action on the contract.

“I’m hoping we get to vote on whether to send this out or not,” Inman said. “We have been talking about this for quite some time, about whether we have a morale issue or not.”

He also asked the board remove a presentation on a survey completed across the state in the spring, but he said those results needed to be presented in the same meeting with the board’s climate survey.

Karge agreed, saying the board was being asked to vote on a contract without completing its “due diligence.” 

“We do not have to make this decision today,” Karge said. The contract’s requirement the board take action by Jan. 31, 2020, “gives us over a month to conduct the morale study, over a month to look at what teachers, bus drivers, central office — the entire staff — feel on a day-to-day basis … If our certified and non-certified staff are indeed unhappy in their jobs because they feel that they are not heard, not valued, not supported, then we have a problem that affects the students in our schools and we need to work with our DOS to correct it.

“If the survey shows there is no major morale issues, then we move on.”

Safdie, who is chairman of the evaluation committee, said he had not felt the survey was vital to making a decision on the contract, especially in light of data on the Tennessee Educator Survey, which Inman also requested be removed from the agenda, saying those results needed to be considered with results of the proposed morale survey.

“I do not necessarily agree with the direction they are promoting at this point, nor do I agree that we haven’t done or are not doing our due diligence,” Safdie said, adding the Tennessee Educator survey did not indicate a “morale crisis” in the schools. 

Brock interrupted, asking Safdie if he intended to review the survey during discussion of whether or not to present the survey results. He also questioned why the survey was being presented at the meeting.

“This survey was done and the results were released months ago,” he said. “Here we are presenting it at a moment when we’re about to make a very important vote. To present the results like you’re doing, and that it’s even on the agenda, is questionable.”

Stone questioned why the committee had proceeded with a survey after the board voted 5-3 not to do a morale survey. 

Inman said the board had voted against the survey because they didn’t know what it would ask or how it would be conducted. 

“This is not an idea. It’s an actual survey,” Inman said.

The motion to remove the contract and Tennessee Educator survey from the agenda failed 5-4. Voting in favor were Inman, Parris, Brock and Karge. Voting against were Boston, Hamby, Netherton, Safdie and Stone. 

Stone then moved to proceed with the agenda as presented, supported by Hamby. The motion passed 5-4 with Inman, Parris, Brock and Karge voting against. 

The next item on the agenda was the contract. 

Stone moved to offer Graham a two-year contract, supported by Safdie. 

Karge restated her position that the board should delay action on the contract.

“We’re rushing into a decision,” she said.

Brock said he had been approached by “many” people, all of whom are against offering Graham a new contract.

Inman said he has received similar contacts from constituents.

Parris said she spoke to every registered voter in the 3rd District during her campaign. 

“I spoke with those people. I didn’t take names. It was what they said. That’s how I vote. It’s how I know. So far, every vote that I’ve had, I’ve had no complaints,” she said.

Stone said he’d received comments for and against offering a new contract. 

“I’ve done due diligence. I’ve talked to elected officials who work with our director of schools. There are plenty of people in favor of the contract,” he said. “If people are only contacting you against, that’s probably because they know what side you’re on,” Stone said.

Brock said Stone’s comment was “offensive.”

“That is totally negative and unnecessary,” he said. 

Stone said his comment was related to the vote taken during the October meeting when members voted on a three-year contract proposal.

“It’s nothing about your integrity,” he told Brock. “It’s the way you voted last meeting.”

Brock said he’d been receiving comments for six months or more.

Karge said one person in the 9th District had contacted her in favor of renewing the director’s contract. She had received 37 emails against.

“That’s a big swing,” she said. “I take pause to this. I understand it’s usually the squeaky wheel. That’s why I’m asking for postponement.”

Safdie again pointed to the Tennessee Educator survey that more than 70% of teachers completed. 

“I see nothing but reasonable responses,” he said. 

Karge said the state survey asked teachers about their school, not system leadership. Safdie said if there were a morale issue throughout the school system, it would have been reflected in that survey.

The motion for a two-year contract failed 5-4. Voting in favor were Stone, Safdie, Boston and Netherton. Voting against were Parris, Brock, Hamby, Karge and Inman.

Karge then moved to postpone the discussion until January, supported by Brock.

That motion failed 5-4. Voting in favor were Karge, Inman, Parris and Brock. Voting against were Stone, Netherton, Hamby, Boston and Safdie.

“We’re at the point where we’re going to have to have some guidance on what this board wants to do tonight,” Boston said.

Karge then moved to table discussion until a work session in January where the board could discuss the matter further, supported by Brock. The motion passed with Netherton, Karge, Inman, Brock and Parris in favor and Stone, Hamby and Boston opposed. Safdie passed.

As the board prepared to move on to the next item of the night, Netherton asked to recall his vote in favor of tabling action on the contract. With his vote now a no, Safdie entered a no vote, as well, and discussion resumed.

Netherton said, “We have two options as I see it right now. We can move to not renew her contract or offer a one-year contract, if she’s willing to take it.”

Karge said Hamby had previously said a one-year contract was “not honorable,” and Karge said she agreed. Hamby said she would remove her statement from October.

“I have had conversations since that meeting,” Hamby said. “I have to stand by my students, my parents. I withdraw my suggestion of a two-year contract. It is not a personal vendetta. It is not disrespectful. I have to listen to my conscience and what I feel.”

The motion for a one-year contract failed 5-4. Voting in favor were Stone, Safdie, Boston and Netherton. Voting against were Parris, Inman, Brock, Hamby and Karge. 

Karge then offered a motion to bring up the contract at a time in January, supported by Stone. Brock reviewed the motions that had been offered and failed. Karge then said, “I withdraw my motion. It’s too complicated.”

Brock said, “The only motion available is to not renew the contract?”

Safdie said that was correct, unless the board agreed to waive procedural rules of order and allow a motion that had already failed to be offered again to the board. Brock then offered the motion not to offer Graham a new contract, which was successful.

The board will convene Jan. 18 for its annual work session, an all-day session held at Central Services, 368 Fourth St. Boston said the board will need to discuss how it plans to proceed at that time.

Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.

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