This post has been updated to reflect information from Tom Netherton, 6th District representative, that he was "uncomfortable" with the three-year contract proposed.
The Cumberland County Board of Education declined a committee recommendation to offer Director of Schools Janet Graham a new three-year contract. A motion to offer a one-year contract was also withdrawn during Thursday’s monthly meeting.
Instead, the board sent the matter back to its contract committee to gather input on contract language.
Jim Inman, 1st District representative, said he was concerned about the morale of faculty and staff, saying he had received calls, emails and text messages asking that he vote no on the contract.
“I have been told that we have a morale problem within our school system,” he said.
He suggested the board develop a survey of faculty and staff before voting on the contract.
“I don’t know if we do or not,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable voting on this contract tonight. I would prefer to table this.”
Stace Karge, 9th District representative, said she had received similar calls.
“I don’t know that we have enough information right now,” she said.
Graham’s current contract expires June 30, 2020. She was hired for the position in July 2016 with an initial three-year contract. The board of education extended the contract one year in June 2018.
The board can take action at any time to extend or renew the contract; however, if it does not take action before Jan. 31, 2020, that serves as notice to Graham it does not intend to renew the contract.
The contract committee of the board met in July to discuss the proposal. Two of the three members of the committee were present for that meeting — Teresa Boston, 8th District representative, and Rebecca Hamby, 7th District representative. Karge was a member of the committee but did not attend the July meeting.
“Nothing was changed,” Boston said.
The contract was published on the school system’s website in July, which includes all documents presented to the board during their committee, regular monthly and special-called meetings.
Committee assignments are made each October.
Tom Netherton, 6th District representative, said he was uncomfortable granting the three-year contract but would prefer a one-year contract. Shirley Parris, 3rd District representative, agreed, noting the 2020 election would include the 2nd, 4th, 6th and 8th district board representatives.
“The board’s going to change,” Parris said. “I don’t think we should vote to extend it beyond a year for them. Mrs. Graham deserves to work under them a year. I agree with that. But more time than that…”
Boston said the motion on the floor was for a three-year contract.
Josh Stone, 4th District representative, countered the argument of the 2020 election, noting about half the board stood for election every two years.
“I understand the point made there, but you’re never going to not have board turnover,” Stone said.
Karge said, “My concern with a three-year contract is, those of us who joined the board in the last year, that’s beyond our term as well.”
She said she was also concerned the contract committee made no changes to the proposed contract.
“I want to emphasize, I was not at that meeting. I’m not saying I would have. I just was not at that meeting,” Karge said.
Boston said she did not believe the contract committee was charged with negotiating the contract. She believed that was the role of the board as a whole.
Inman said there were portions of the contract he did not like. He requested a work session to discuss those portions of the contract.
“It’s just minor stuff, but still there are some items in that contract that I don’t like. Right now all I’m getting is a yes or a no,” he said.
The motion to offer Graham a three-year contract failed 6 to 2. Voting in favor were Rob Safdie, 2nd District representative, and Stone. Voting no were Inman, Parris, Netherton, Hamby, Karge and Tony Brock, 5th District representative.
Netherton then moved to renew the contract with Graham for one year, from July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021, supported by Hamby.
Inman renewed his request for a work session to discuss contract language.
“I don’t like having to say yes or no on the entire contract,” he said. “I would like to have some input on the entire contract. It wouldn’t take a couple of hours.”
Boston asked that he expand on his concerns with the possibility of resolving issues that evening as Inman said the items were “minor.”
Inman objected to the contract referring to Graham as the “superintendent” though a 1992 state law changed the position title to “director of schools.” He also objected to a section that said board members would refer complaints, concerns and criticisms to the director of schools. This language was also a point of discussion for the policy committee when it discussed the Tennessee School Boards Association’s proposed policy on the board code of ethics. The item was tabled and will be discussed at the November policy committee meeting.
“That’s saying every time somebody gives me a phone call, I’ve got to call Mrs. Graham and say, ‘Somebody told me this, this and this,’” he said. “I’m not doing that. But according to this contract, we have to.”
BOE Attorney Earl Patton said the law allowed the two terms — superintendent and director of schools — to be used interchangeably. Graham said she signed items as the director of schools. Patton also checked school board policy, which did not include a reference to state law for the requirement board members refer matters to the director of schools. He said the board could change the statement to “may” refer items to the director.
Karge said, “It seems that there are several of us with uneasy feelings about some of the innuendo or semantics or whatever you want to refer to. I just think that having a work session where we can get together, put our heads together, we can all feel good about offering our only employee a contract we’re all happy with and she’s happy with.”
Netherton and Hamby withdrew the motion. Netherton then moved to ask the contract committee to convene in November and return with a recommendation at the December meeting of the board. The board does not meet in November.
“Everybody on this board is welcome to come to any committee they want to come to and present their points of view,” Netherton said.
Karge said individuals who do not serve on the committee could not vote at a committee meeting. However, the board can also not vote during work sessions — only during official sessions of the board which includes a quorum of the members.
“You can express the same things in a committee meeting that you can in a work session,” Netherton said.
The motion passed with Karge and Parris voting no. Stone passed.
Inman then asked about issuing a survey regarding employee morale within the school system. Brock said the board would need that information before acting on the contract.
Inman said, “I need something now so I can decide how I’m going to vote on this contract.”
The school system includes approximately 1,200 employees.
Questions were raised regarding who would receive the results, how it would be secured and who would develop the wording. Karge said she could develop a survey using the online tool Survey Monkey. Hamby said the survey only needed to include employees — not the public or social media.
Brock asked if anyone had experience creating surveys, noting there were numerous options for how to word questions and responses.
“A lot of thought needs to be put into that, as well,” he said.
Boston said, “A survey like this is a lot like a lie detector. The questions that you ask can make or fail.”
Karge said, “I don’t think anybody is trying to make this a negative.”
Safdie said, “If we’re going to use this as a legitimate tool to measure the degree to which there is a morale problem, we need to start with the basics of what are we defining as a morale problem. I’m not sure that we can get this done in 30 days.
“I do this for a career, or at least I have done it. The question is, are we going to do this right?”
If TSBA didn’t have resources to help develop the survey, Safdie was unsure what other resources could be utilized.
“If we had started this five or six months ago then we would be in a much better position to make that decision,” Safdie said.
Inman said he only recently received calls regarding staff morale.
The motion failed 5 to 3. Voting in favor were Parris, Karge and Inman. Voting no were Safdie, Stone, Netherton, Hamby and Boston. Brock passed.
The contract committee will meet Nov. 11 at 5:30 p.m. at Central Services, 368 Fourth St., following the meeting of the director of schools evaluation committee. The public is invited to attend all meetings of the board and its committees.