Wilson County Schools will require all students, teachers and staff to wear face masks or shields when school resumes on a hybrid schedule Aug. 17.
The decision was made during Monday’s school board meeting, which also saw an ethics complaint against board member Wayne McNeese resolved.
The mask issue was not on the agenda, but was brought up by board member Chad Karl in light of Monday’s decision by Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto to extend the countywide mask mandate to Aug. 29 and Friday’s statement by Gov. Bill Lee urging schools to require masks.
The board’s action requires students of all ages to wear masks when on school property, including buses. Exceptions will be allowed for medical reasons and will be considered on a case-by-case basis, WCS Director Donna Wright indicated.
Karl originally asked for a mask mandate in July, but the board rejected the motion, largely because there was no state or county mask mandate. Since then, Lee gave county mayors the authority to mandate masks. On Friday, Lee extended that authority to Aug. 29, which Hutto did.
The county mandate, under the governor’s authority, eliminated the concern that the school district did not have the legal ability to issue a mandate.
Board attorney Mike Jennings said during Monday’s discussion that state Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s opinion that mask mandates are constitutionally defensible and the governor’s statement Friday give the district “a lot of cover” to issue a mandate.
Karl’s motion Monday originally called for a mandate “in areas where social distancing can’t be maintained.” However, board member Bill Robinson argued that creating exceptions to the mandate would make enforcement difficult.
“I think if we’re going to require masks, then we need to require masks. We’re either in or out,” Robinson said. “I’m not going to vote for a nuanced thing.”
The motion to require masks passed 5-2, with McNeese and board member Kimberly McGee voting no.
Monday’s meeting also saw the resolution of an ethics complaint filed by board secretary Sherrie Hyder in May against McNeese.
In the complaint, Hyder said McNeese asked for a “tongue kiss” as he entered the board room for the May 4 meeting. At the end of the meeting, Hyder said in the complaint, McNeese “said to me ‘I’m still waiting on that tongue kiss’ and I said ‘Wayne you are going to get yourself fired.’ He then stated to me ‘that’s not what you said when we were at W.A. Wright’ (Elementary) referring to the school I worked for 30 years. I replied ‘now you are telling lies and spreading rumors’ and I walked away.”
The board’s ethics committee, composed of Linda Armistead, McGee and Robinson, accepted a report in a separate meeting Monday from a Memphis law firm that was hired to investigate the complaint.
The investigation found McNeese’s comments to Hyder did not rise to the level of unlawful sexual harassment, but were a breach of his duty as a board member. McNeese denied making the comment to investigators, although he told the Lebanon Democrat in June that he had made it in jest. The report, done by attorney Debra Owen with the firm of Jackson, Shields, Yeiser, Holt, Owen and Bryant, does not address the discrepancy. It does, however, find it credible that McNeese made the comments.
The ethics committee recommended the full board accept the three recommendations made by the law firm. They are:
1) The board should “consider a public censure of Mr. McNeese for inappropriate and offensive remarks made to an employee in the Wilson County Schools.”
2) The committee should remind the board that retaliation against Hyder, McNeese and any witnesses is prohibited by state and federal law.
3) The committee should remind the board that it is required by law to ensure all employees are free from all forms of discrimination and harassment and that all personnel receive training regarding the behaviors.
Owen had suggested to the committee that it have board chair Larry Tomlinson and Jennings write a letter of censure, but Jennings argued that the board’s adoption of the recommendations was in fact a public censure.
Robinson said, “We’re not issuing a statement of public censure. I don’t think we are fulfilling the task we were asked to do.”
But, according to Jennings, “What you’ve done here tonight is censure Mr. McNeese.”
The board voted 6-0 to accept the recommendations, with McNeese abstaining.