The Macon County School Board’s special-called meeting last Thursday seemed primarily for the purpose of passing its budget for the upcoming year.
However, the meeting concluded with 20 minutes of intense discussion regarding a situation involving the Macon County High School principal.
Ben Johnson is completing his first year as the MCHS principal, and he told his faculty and staff three days earlier that he will not be returning for the 2021-22 school year.
After the school board approved its budget for the upcoming school year, school board member Lionel Borders asked Macon County Director of Schools Tony Boles about the situation.
“Where are we at with our principal situation,” Borders said.
Boles indicated that he planned to name Johnson’s successor the next day.
“We’ve been talking to people yesterday and today,” Boles said. “I’m going to name somebody pretty quick.”
Boles explained why he felt it was important to fill the vacancy quickly.
“I feel like this situation needs to be taken care of as quickly as possible to get somebody in place, ready to go,” Boles said. “Mr. Johnson is going to be there through his contract, through the 30th (of June), but we still need somebody in place. We don’t need to wait until he’s gone and then try to put somebody in place. I’ve learned that from the last time I tried to hire a principal there. We can get them in place, and they can start planning and get things going.”
Borders and fellow board member Tim Case indicated that they had both received many phone calls following Johnson’s resignation.
“Mr. Boles, I have to tell you … I’ve had a ton of phone calls this afternoon … that you’ve already told one that she’s going to be the principal … a lot of people, I mean, I had to shut my phone off just to get in my building (business),” Case said.
Borders — moments later — added, “Did you promise this individual a year ago that they would have this position if it didn’t work out with Mr. Johnson?”
Boles denied that, and Case then asked if Johnson ever elaborated on his reasons for resignation.
“He said there were several reasons to resign,” Boles said. “He said the deal with the student wanting to come back was the last straw.”
Case asked why there was a decision change in regard to the student who Boles referred to who was allowed to re-enroll.
“He filed a formal complaint,” Boles said. “If he didn’t agree with my resolution, it would go to arbitration or mediation.
“As I told you all (the board members) sitting right in that office that it was because they wanted to bring him back and do it virtually during the school year … he’s coming back to do it during summer school, so they just did not bring him back and didn’t re-enroll him in the school to finish up in about two days. He’s got to go through summer school. Besides, board policy says that any student that has already been brought to re-enroll has to be in agreement with the principal and the director of schools — not or — and I was not contacted when the decision was made, so the principal violated the policy.”
Case asked if the school system lost a principal over the matter in question.
“I don’t think it was just that,” Boles said. “I think there were other things that went on in that school that he didn’t feel like he had the support of everbody.”
Case asked if Johnson had Boles’ support, and Boles responded by saying, “A hundred%.”
Case also asked if Johnson requested that some of the faculty or staff members be moved.
At that point, fellow board member Wayne Marsh interjected, making a motion to adjourn that did not receive a second.
“This is a public matter,” Case said.
Marsh added, “It’s not on the agenda.”
Boles then addressed the hiring and firing of individuals within the school system.
“That’s my job … mine only,” Boles said. “Tell me who I supposedly told (Johnson) he could not move?”
Case added, “You tell me.”
Boles then indicated that Johnson asked to move MCHS Assistant Principal Vicki Pagan.
Though Goad — the school board chairman — reminded everyone that there was a motion to adjourn, the discussion continued.
“Well, at some point, we’re going to have to discuss a few things, because with the amount of phone calls I received from faculty who are concerned with the situation, at some point, we are going to have to decide that we are going to talk about it,” Borders said.
Case added, “We’re going to be losing a lot of teachers if we make this move.”
Boles then mentioned that there were rumors that had circulated in the days following Johnson’s resignation.
“A rumor and 50 cents will buy you a Coke … the rumor the first minute that his resignation came in, the rumor was that a board member had made the statement that they would be bringing B.J. West back,” Boles said. “Was that ever said?”
Multiple board members said that they also heard the same rumor.
“I heard it on the football field,” Borders said. “One of the (Macon County High football) players said, ‘Hey, I heard that B.J. West is going to come back and get his old job back.’ I said, ‘That’s news to me.’ ”
Johnson was hired to succeed West last July. West was demoted before ultimately taking a position with Trousdale County Schools. That came after West was the emcee at the Macon County High graduation in mid-June of last year after being given a coronavirus test one day earlier. Two days after the graduation, it was discovered that West’s test was positive.
At that point in the meeting, Goad indicated that he felt that the discussion should not be handled publicly.
“I feel like that this is a matter, that through the chain of command that we’re supposed to have, that this is a conversation that the three of you (Borders, Case and fellow board member Dale Hix) who have been addressed with should have with (Boles),” Goad said. “What do you all think? That’s the way we’re supposed to work when people bring complaints to us.”
Case expressed interest in continuing the discussion after Boles indicated that he was about to fill the vacancy.
Boles then asked what the complaints from people who had called the board members to voice concerns were in regard to the potential new hire as the principal.
“You would get complaints irregardless of who was named,” Boles said. “What’s their complaints?”
Borders added, “Lack of experience, lack of ability, the fact of being a portion of the undermining factor (in school interaction involving recent principals) … I guess I could go on, but it is what it is.”
Boles addressed that situation.
“I can tell you this … probably the very same people are the ones that didn’t want Mr. West there, that didn’t want whoever principal would have been there, because they know they can’t get their way,” Boles said. “You can’t assume just because somebody else has an opinion about how somebody else is going to perform as a principal … you won’t know until you give them a shot.”
Case added, “And you think this is the best hire that you can make? Is this the most qualified candidate?”
Boles indicated that he felt that was the best candidate within the school system.
“Well, I disagree with that,” Case said. “You’re going to make a bad situation worse, because you’re going to make a whole bunch of teachers (dissatisfied) … we’ve went through two principals in two years and are making a third hire, a third principal in three years.
“Evidently, there’s a problem over there at that school. My daughter will graduate high school and have three principals in high school, so yeah, there’s a problem … and it’s not been addressed, and I don’t see this hire is going to address it.”
Boles pointed to an extensive history of turnover in the position of the Macon County High principal.
“They went through five principals in four years at one time,” Boles said. “Mr. West had been there the longest … so, who do you all think is qualified?”
Goad added, “One, I don’t think this is the situation in which to have this conversation. But I do feel like, yes, there is a conversation to be had about the problem at the high school. I don’t feel like this is the setting for it, but I do feel like there is a meeting that needs to be addressed with the problem at the high school.”
Boles indicated that Johnson was not able to fix the problem that has been ongoing on at the high school in his one year there.
“Was he allowed to fix it,” Case said. “Was he allowed to move who he wanted where he wanted in that school?”
Boles added, “He never asked me to move one person. When he came in, he never asked to move anybody.”
As the meeting progressed, it transitioned to past conversations.
Case mentioned that there were people who were going to be upset with the potential hire.
“Those same people were upset with Mr. West … mark my words, they were,” Boles said. “So, why are you defending him now when you came to me right after you (Case) got elected (to the school board) about Mr. West?”
Case added, “I did. I asked you about it. I asked you point-blank.”
Boles pointed out that he felt that Case now wanted to listen to complaints from teachers, though he didn’t previously.
“I told you that we had teachers that called and had complaints, but you didn’t want to hear that,” Boles said. “But now, you want to listen to them.”
Case added, “One of the same teachers that complained the whole time that I read text messages over is the same one you’re getting ready to hire for a principal. That’s a fact. This is going to be way worse.”
Borders confirmed that he had viewed some of those same text messages.
“I think they called it a, we-finally-got-rid-of-B.J. party in the text messages I read,” Borders said.
Case added, “And the e-mails, we can pull those up and make them public record … that’s fine.”
Boles said that he never saw the e-mails that Case referred to.
“I can’t prove you did, but I’m telling you, everybody else did,” Case said.
Boles added, “Y’all got one choice … buy my contract out. It’s to be a negotiated buyout. That means, if I won’t approve it, it doesn’t get bought out.”
When that notion was quickly refuted, Boles responded by saying, “Well, then, you’re going to let me do my job. I feel like that you should have come to me privately and discussed this.”
As the discussion continued, Case and Boles continued to exchange feedback regarding the complaints.
“That’s not their role,” Boles said. “It’s not their choice. They want somebody that they can run roughshod over.”
Case then said that Boles was upset that people were calling Case and complaining.
“No, I’m not upset … I’m upset that you all have ambushed me in a public meeting over something that is not your job,” Boles said.
Case added, “Was Mr. Johnson ambushed when his supporters went around him to you and you come over the top of him?”
Then, the conversation concluded as they briefly returned to discussing the student matter involving the student’s re-enrollment.
“I would really appreciate it if y’all would … this is kind of out of order … if y’all would do this in a different setting,” Goad said. “I would be glad to sit with and give input or whatever.”
Boles responded by saying, “I don’t know what more they would have to say?”
Case added, “I have a lot to say.”
The meeting then adjourned as the board members moved into Boles’ office to continue their discussion.
The opening for the principal job was posted on the Macon County School System’s web site last Thursday at some point, but no principal was named on Friday.
Regarding the budget that was previously discussed at the board’s work session, Boles told the board that a change they had requested had been made.
“In capital outlay, to increase (line item) 799 Other Capital Outlay from $200,000 to $600,000, making total capital outlay $1,300,000,” Boles said.
Boles also told the board that, except for the money for the land purchase for the new elementary school and capital outlays, the board would have a balanced budget.
“It’s been a long time since we could say that,” Boles said.
The board approved a capital projects budget and school nutrition budget as well.
Macon County School Nutrition Supervisor Terin Coe told the board that the county’s students would again receive free lunch and that the reimbursement that the county receives from the program woud be increasing.
The board also approved the addition of a new first-grade teacher at Westside Elementary due to the increased number of students among the rising first-graders.