Board backs Pharis in appeals

WARREN FIELD is shown here from his days as a football coach at Cairo High School.

Two veteran educators appealed their nonrenewal of contracts before the Grady County Board of Education last week. The board, after considering the appeals, denied both. However, both can still argue their case to the State Board of Education if they so choose.
Appeal hearings were held last Monday for Warren Field, and last Wednesday for Elizabeth Heinlen. They are not being renewed for contracts for the upcoming 2009-2010 school year due to a reduction in force ordered by the school board and on the recommendation of Superintendent Dr. Tommy Pharis.
While both hearings were nonrenewal appeals, the differences in the two proceedings were like night and day.
Attorneys representing Field called a number of witnesses who testified to Field’s influence on students and his value to the school system.
Ms. Heinlen’s attorney, Howard J. Stiller, called none.
The hearing for Ms. Heinlen was convened Wednesday afternoon, moments after the board came out of an executive session to vote 4-0 to uphold the superintendent’s recommendation not to renew the contract of Field. Board member Byron Puckett abstained.
Thomas L. Lehman, who represented Superintendent Pharis in both proceedings, told board members the case regarding Ms. Heinlen was simple.
Through testimony they would hear, Lehman said, that the school system is facing a $1.4 million budget deficit and that a reduction in force is a part of the effort to cut expenses.
Lehman also noted that Ms. Heinlen is not tenured as an administrator but as a teacher, and there are no teaching positions for which she is certified available for the 2009-10 school year.
According to Dr. Pharis, Ms. Heinlen is certified in k-12 leadership, 6-12 family & consumer science and 6-12 Spanish.
Stiller laid out his case, calling into question the procedures involved with the board’s revision of its 1984 reduction in force policy which took place in March of this year.
During Stiller’s cross examination of Superintendent Pharis, he continued to press and press and, at one point, demanded that the hearing officer, Thomas County State Court Judge Elliott McCollum, force Pharis to answer the question.
Stiller repeatedly asked if, at any time, were portions of the 1984 policy on reductions in force ever repealed or rescinded.
“What terms of the existing policy were deemed null and void?” Stiller questioned.
“We revised the policy, placed it on the table for 30 days at the February meeting, and adopted the revised policy in March,” Superintendent Pharis said.
“Is any part of the 1984 policy still in effect?” Stiller asked.
“We revised the policy and it went into effect March 10, 2009,” Pharis responded.
“I understand that, sir, but my question is, is any part of the 1984 policy still good after the March 10 policy was adopted?” pushed Stiller.
“We’re operating under the March 10 policy,” Pharis maintained.
“None of the 1984 policy applies?” Stiller asked.
“We’re operating under the March 10 policy,”  Pharis repeated.
“That is not my question,” the Albany attorney said.
“That is my answer,” the superintendent replied.
“Judge, I hate to ask you this, but will you please instruct the superintendent to give a responsive answer. I believe the question is pretty clear,” Stiller said.
Judge McCollum requested Stiller to repeat the question.
“Is it your contention that by automatically adopting the March 10 policy . . . it automatically canceled the existing policy without doing anything more?” Stiller asked.
Pharis replied, “When we adopted the revised policy the old one is no longer in effect.”
Stiller also attempted to make an issue of memos and notes maintained by the superintendent that were not made a part of Ms. Heinlen’s personnel file even though Pharis made copies of his file and presented to both Ms. Heinlen and Mr. Stiller.
“You received that information. And, as I told Ms. Heinlen, I was not building an employment case against her. This is a matter of reduction in force. If I had been building a documented case against her, yes, you give the individual the information, you talk with them about it and let them know it is being made a part of their personnel file. I was not building a case against Ms. Heinlen,” Dr. Pharis said.
Attorney Stiller asked if there was any “room for years of service” in the revised policy.
“Yes, there is,” Pharis said as he referred back to the policy. “The primary criteria are documented job performance, and then the superintendent’s knowledge and observation. All things being equal, the policy calls for a look at years of continuous service. So there is a place in the policy for years of service,” Dr. Pharis said.
Stiller also appeared to try and force the superintendent to identify one document as the board policy when, in fact, it was the board’s approved plan for a reduction in force.
“That is not the policy. Exhibit 6 is the board approved plan, not the board policy,” Pharis noted.
Stiller also pressed to know what criteria were used first in determining not to renew Ms. Heinlen.
“I used my knowledge and observations, documented job performance and concerns from constituents,” Dr. Pharis said.
Stiller asked, “Would you agree that an employee’s being over 40 shouldn’t face a greater chance of nonrenewal than those under 40? In terms of seniority or years of service, what consideration, if any, did you give Ms. Heinlen in deciding her for nonrenewal?” Stiller asked.
“As I said I went by the board policy. If all things are equal I would look at years of experience, but in this case not all things are equal. I made the determination, based on my knowledge and observation, that she should not be recommended,” Dr. Pharis said.
In testimony given Wednesday, Dr. Pharis noted that since Washington Middle School Principal Arthur Anderson and Ms. Heinlen went to WMS the enrollment has dropped from 780 in 2001 to 589 today. Although systemwide enrollment has also dropped, Pharis noted the system’s enrollment for the same period was only off 177, from 4,585 to 4,408.
Dr. Pharis also testified that Washington earns less then one full-time assistant principal, but currently has two, and that, combined with the dropping enrollment, was justification for including an assistant principal at WMS in the reduction in force.
“I think it is important that I say this. It is my opinion that Ms. Heinlen is a good person who has high ideals. It is also my opinion that she has the best interest of kids at heart. However, I have serious concerns with her job performance and have spoken with Ms. Heinlen on numerous times about this,” Pharis said.
The superintendent testified that he had received more complaints from parents and school staff concerning Ms. Heinlen than all other assistant principals combined.
The majority of those concerns dealt with what Pharis described as “over zealous enforcement of dress code issues.”
When questioned by Lehman about the “spirit” and “progress” and “direction” of Washington Pharis said, “In my opinion, the climate at that school is poorest of any school in the system.”
Stiller and Pharis sparred over annual evaluations and the enforcement of dress code violations.
Stiller asked the superintendent if he had ever talked with Ms. Heinlen about any teaching opportunities.
According to Dr. Pharis, in June of 2007 he told Ms. Heinlen he was considering moving her from assistant principal at Washington to an elementary Spanish language teaching position, but “no others.”
In his closing arguments, Lehman stated, “Is there a teaching position available she could fit into? The answer is no. There isn’t any. The overall answer to the question is, she should not be extended a contract.”
Having waived the right to an opening statement and not have called a single witness, not even Ms. Heinlen, Stiller closed by arguing that the board’s failure, in his opinion, to correctly follow all “polices, rules and laws” introduced into the record of this case, the board had only two choices: correct it now and rule for Ms. Heinlen or “put her in a position to argue another day before the State Board of Education and have worse problems later.”
The board retreated behind closed doors for approximately 15 minutes before reopening the hearing to the public, voting unanimously then to uphold the recommendation of the superintendent not to renew Ms. Heinlen’s contract.
Ms. Heinlen has been an employee of the school system since 1977.
Next up is Arthur Anderson, principal of WMS, whose hearing will convene later today. However, the recommendation not to renew Anderson’s contract is a matter of job performance only, and not part of a reduction in force.
Anderson is also being represented by Attorney Stiller. Visit www.cairomessenger.com for a report of the hearing and a complete wrap-up in the Aug. 29 edition of The Cairo Messenger.

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