By Heather Mullinix
The Cumberland County Board of Education denied a request for a complaint to be heard by the board during its September meeting, but discussion of the hearing request revealed confusion about how the board is to address complaints that advance through the procedure.
The complaint had been filed by a parent last year in accordance with policy 5.501 and the complaint had progressed to the director of schools. However, the policy allows that, "If the director is unable to resolve a complaint to the satisfaction of all parties concerned within 10 days following step 5 [receipt of written complaint by the director of schools and a conference with all parties], he/she shall, at the request of the complainant or teacher, send a report of his/her investigation along with his/her findings and recommendations, in writing, to the Board and copies to all parties concerned."
Board Attorney Earl Patton addressed the portions of policy and the teacher contract that related to complaints against teachers.
"The board policy is more protective of the teacher than the contract," Patton explained. "In keeping with not violating the contract, I recommend you go with the provision that protects that teacher the most, otherwise you would potentially violate the contract with the teacher."
Patton said all members of the board had received copies of director of schools report regarding the investigation of the complaint and a copy of the director's position.
Patton explained the board had the option of affirming the director's decision or grant a hearing to be held at another date.
"The teacher has a right to have counsel and a [Tennessee Education Association] representative present," Patton explained. "Both parties are allowed to attend and call witnesses, and the board acts as a judge in that hearing."
He cautioned the board to only discuss whether or not to grant a hearing, as discussing the actual complaint in the meeting could violate the rights of the teacher or student involved.
Charles Tollett, 1st District representative, asked, "Without deliberating, one of the things in my mind is to identify the request the hearing would address. What does the complainant want done that hasn't been done?"
Patton said, "In fairness, we don't know."
He said the board would need to decide if a hearing would be granted based on whether or not they felt the matter had been handled sufficiently by the director.
Sandy Brewer, 3rd District representative, said she'd first received an email May 16 from Patton that advised the board to review the written record and decide to grant or deny a hearing before the board. She said she received another email July 27, and then on Sept. 7, Patton emailed the board saying 60 days had passed and, given the length of time, he was assuming the board agreed with the director's decision in the matter.
Patton said, "There's not a timeline, but given that much time had passed, I felt it did need to be resolved one way or another. Given that no one requested it be placed on the agenda, the assumption there was that no one wanted to place it on the agenda."
Brewer said, "Apparently we've got a policy we're not following. We need to decide whether we're going to agree with the director or disagree, but doesn't that mean the director is supposed to give that information to each board member and let the board make the decision and make it final."
Patton said he was under the impression everything had been forwarded to each board member and was waiting for someone to place it on the agenda, if it was going to be placed on the agenda.
Patton said the policy may need to be refined, especially with how to define "resolved."
"The policy says if the director of schools is unable to resolve the matter to the satisfaction of all policies concerned. In this case, the decision to date was the child was removed from this teacher's classroom," Patton said. "The question in my mind is, can it be resolved any more than that to any one individual complaint?"
Dan Schlafer, 9th District representative, moved to deny the request for a hearing, supported by Richard Janeway, 2nd District representative. The motion was approved with with 7 voting in favor, one voting against and one passing. Voting in favor were Schlafer; David Bowman, 7th District representative; Gordon Davis, 5th District representative; Josh Stone, 4th District representative; Janeway; Charles Tollett, 1st District representative; and Jim Blalock, 8th District representative.
Brewer voted no, adding, "We've drug it out and I think we need more information according to our policy."
Vivian Hutson, 6th District representative, passed, saying, "I don't feel I have information on what the parents are actually asking for."
Tollett said there were issues the board needed to resolve regarding procedures. He asked the board take time to discuss those at its annual work session held Saturday.
At that meeting, Patton suggested that, as complaints work their way through the process, when a principal or director believes a matter is resolved, a form should be developed that all parties sign.
"That way, six months later they can't say it wasn't resolved at all," he said. "The general policy is to resolve complaints at the lowest possible level."
Patton also suggested the board consider changes to policy or the teacher contract, which expires Aug. 1, 2013, so that complaint procedures are the same.
There were also questions of board members conducting their own investigation after a complaint has been brought to them by a parent. The code of ethics calls for all complaints to be referred to the director of schools and Patton said he had been asked if a board member conducting his or her own investigation into a matter could be barred from voting on a complaint, should it progress through the complaint process.
"I did not find anything to support that idea," Patton told the board Saturday. "Certainly, if an individual member formed their own opinion about a case and investigated one side and has a bias going into a vote, I can see that that would create some possible issues if the vote resulted in adverse action against the teacher."