Curtis fired; two resign in protest

Wednesday, October 7, 2009
An overflow crowd watched the Marshall County School Board vote 6-3 to buy out the contract of Schools Director Stan Curtis. The buyout will cost the board $150,000.

Marshall County's director of schools was fired at the School Board's special called meeting Monday night, and Roy Dukes was appointed interim director.

In addition to a new director, the county will be looking for two new school board members: Kristen Gold and Todd Tietgens, who both voted to keep Stan Curtis in his job, resigned from the board.

Curtis cleared his desk and turned in his keys and county cell phone before leaving the Central Office on Monday night, according to Rhonda Poole, a secretary at the front office. She was unable to supply Curtis' personal phone number, so he could not be reached for comment.

It was standing room only in the school board meeting room a quarter hour before the special session. Some people sat on the floor. Others stood in the hall and the crowd wasn't shy about making its feelings known: subdued boo's greeted the entrance of Craig Michael who had made the motion to hold the special called meeting.

After a few words from new chairman Mike Keny, Michael moved that the Board exercise its right to unilaterally terminate Curtis' contract, and former chairwoman Ann Tears seconded the motion.

"Where are we going to find $150,000 without going to the commission?" asked board member Mark Wilkerson, who also voted to keep Curtis.

"Even if we could find the money, is this a smart use of our funds?" Gold asked. "We just did this two years ago. We need to take a serious look to see if this is the best option for our school system."

Michael replied, "The money is there to buy out this contract without asking for additional funds. There are several line items that have consistently run below budget. It's an expensive action, but it would be more expensive to keep our present path."

Michael went on to give examples of where Curtis had cost the school system money. The recently-hired directors of transportation and school health are being paid considerably more than the people who held those positions last year.

"Besides the money," Michael said, "the biggest issue I hear about on a constant basis is the lack of buy-in for the changes he has proposed."

"Do we," Tietgens asked, "have buy-in for this?"

A chorus of "No" rose from the audience.

"Overwhelmingly, everyone I've spoken to says 'Let the man do his job'" Gold said, receiving loud applause.

Tears had also been listening to citizens' comments, and read out a number of them, some of them positive, but more of them negative.

"We can't continue in this direction," she summarized. "I don't feel like I'm getting enough good information to make the decisions I need to make."

Gold said people have told her that "they're afraid of retaliation from the board. The direction comes from the top, and this board is the top, and the board is not working together well. We've set a horrible example of how to work together."

The audience replied with loud applause.

"I've heard of people who are afraid of retaliation from the director and the supervisors," Tears countered. "The issue here is the running of the school system."

"We," Wilkerson countered, "don't run the school system. We set policy and let the director do his job."

Michael said, "Overwhelmingly, the people who contact me are not in support of Curtis."

Board member Randy Perryman had a similar experience.

"I didn't vote to have this meeting," Perryman said. "Once it was (called) I had to get out and talk to people, and the majority told me they could not move forward if Curtis survives this meeting. It's an embarrassment to be sitting here in this situation. For the last year we have been spinning our wheels. We have got to move forward in a positive way."

Callin that "a powerful statement," Michael added, "I had a personal conversation with Curtis last week and I hope he understands the sincerity with which I told him I felt I had failed. I did vote to bring him here. No one person is responsible for it not being where we would like it to be."

Chairman Keny asked for the roll call vote, and Michael's motion was carried 6-3. Curt Denton and Dee Dee Owens had said nothing during the discussion, but voted with Michael, Perryman, Keny, and Tears to buy out Curtis contract.

"I would like to resign," Tietgens exclaimed immediately after the vote.

"I resign my seat as well," Gold said.

Loud applause greeted both of these resignations, and Gold, Tietgens, Curtis, and a number of audience members, apparently Curtis supporters, left the building.

Attorney Sam Jackson, from the school board's law firm Lewis, King, Krieg and Waldrop, told the Board it had to appoint an interim director before adjourning.

Wilkerson seconded a motion by Michael to appoint the assistant director, and there was a short break while Dukes was contacted and summoned to the meeting.

"Mr. Dukes has agreed to serve as interim director," said Keny, and this announcement was also greeted with applause. The remaining board members unanimously voted for Dukes, and Keny announced Dukes would assume responsibility immediately.

"Well, you've won," said Tietgens as he was leaving the meeting.

"No," said Michael afterwards. "Nobody has won here."

Lewisburg Mayor Barbara Woods said, "You've made a horrible mistake."

The retired teacher and former elementary school principal attended with members of the City Council and County Commission.

"You're sending a message to the commission that there's $150,000 in the budget that could have been spent on other needs," Woods said of "things that could have benefited our students."