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There have been questions about the school system’s credit card bills, complaints to the state that resulted in a finding that 21 students received diplomas they weren’t entitled to, and teacher complaints of harassment and retaliation.
Mary Sue Terry
Ronnie Neal Terry
Sunday, July 14, 2013
STUART — In Patrick County, the school board is banning a former Virginia attorney general from its meetings, the board of supervisors chairman has said the school superintendent needs to go, and the superintendent has sued the supervisors’ chairman for defamation, seeking $10.35 million.
It’s not quite politics as usual these days.
“It’s kind of tense situation down here,” said Ronnie Neal Terry, school board chairman in the rural county of 18,700 about 70 miles southwest of Roanoke. “It’s almost like we’re too small, everybody’s in everybody’s business.”
Feelings were running high even before Mary Sue Terry, who served as Virginia’s attorney general for two terms in the 1980s and 1990s (and is not related to the school board chairman), stepped into a closed-door session of the Patrick County School Board in late June.
The former attorney general said she was trying to open a meeting about controversial teacher reassignments that should not have been closed to the public. The school board chairman said she barged in and totally disrupted the board’s work, and therefore banned her from school property and from board meetings.
But before that, there were questions about the school system’s credit card bills, complaints to the state that resulted in a finding that 21 students received diplomas they weren’t entitled to, and teacher complaints of harassment and retaliation. Teachers had earlier protested use of their Social Security numbers in a computerized grading system and alleged breakdowns of discipline in the high school.
Tempers rose last year when the school board reduced incentive payments to teachers who had retired earlier, and didn’t cool when it restored payments but said retirees had to work as substitutes or teachers for twice as many days.
They rose again this year when the school board reassigned 10 teachers, including some who had given information to state officials who came to investigate testing and graduation rates at the high school.
Five teachers have formally complained of retaliation. School board chairman Terry said the board is seeking an outsider to investigate.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said School Superintendent Roger Morris. “We’re being torn apart by gossip. … I’ve had people coming into my office in tears.”
But his critics say they’ve never seen anything like it either — retired Principal Larry Belcher said he’s seen a teacher coming out of closed door meetings with Morris in tears. Retired teacher Linda Wilson said Morris has slammed hands on his desk and yelled at a parent to get out of his office. She was appalled at a recent meeting when Morris referred to a heavy-set school official as rolling around in a nearby hallway.
“He’s very smart, very intelligent. He’s just not as good at the good ole boy thing as some people would like,” school board chairman Terry said.
“I’m still waiting for someone to show me something he’s done wrong, legally wrong,” Terry added. He said the state investigation found problems that started before Morris arrived in 2007, while the superintendent has accomplished a lot to improve the county’s schools, which enrolled about 2,650 students last school year.
Morris says he doesn’t understand the criticism.
“I think I’m pretty flexible,” he said. “The others, it’s all my way or the highway. … I still don’t know what Ms. [Mary Sue] Terry’s problem is; she’s never come in to talk to me.”
Mary Sue Terry said it was the retired teachers’ complaints about cuts in early retirement incentive payments last year that got her involved. She also sued the school board, complaining it did not fully comply with Freedom of Information Act requests for credit card bills, but a Circuit Court judge rejected her arguments and ordered her to pay $900 of the schools’ legal costs .
Terry’s lawsuit came around the time board of supervisors Chairman Lockhart Boyce started raising questions about Morris’ use of a school system credit card to pay the $362 bill for a meeting of four school superintendents from a regional working group.
“As a gracious host, it was not Morris’ role, nor would any reasonable person suggest it was Morris’s role, to dictate to his guests what they could, or could not, order from the standard menu,” Morris noted in his lawsuit against Boyce, adding that the regional superintendents’ group had reimbursed the school for the use of the credit card.
The lawsuit states Boyce asked the Virginia State Police to investigate, noting that the investigation found no wrongdoing, but that Boyce repeatedly said on a radio show he hosts that Morris had acted corruptly. Morris said Boyce also accused him of improper credit card use for charging $14,500 of expenses for various educational conferences, of intimidating teachers and administrators and treating the retirees unfairly.
Boyce’s comments aimed “to destroy Morris’s reputation in Patrick County,” in order to force his firing as superintendent, the lawsuit added.
Boyce said he can’t comment about the lawsuit, except to say “I think it’s pretty sad when you have one public official suing another.”
But, he added, he felt the school board’s decision to bar the former attorney general from its meetings was “odious,” adding: “To say you can’t come to a public meeting when the rest of the public can — where does it stop? What if they don’t like your color, or where you go to church? … Being inconvenienced or hearing things you don’t want to hear shouldn’t be a problem.”
School board chairman Terry, meanwhile, said he doesn’t see tensions easing anytime soon.
“It’s a tough time,” he said. “I just hope we get through starting the school year OK.”
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