By Ray Van Dusen/Monroe Journal
ABERDEEN — Terminated Aberdeen School District superintendent Chester Leigh ended his direct examination last week by stating, “It seemed like a situation to me where they were just looking for a reason to get rid of me because I didn’t cooperate with some of the things they wanted.”
Dismissed in December by a 3-2 vote by the Aberdeen School Board, the 15-year ASD administrator stated he had no forewarning of his dismissal until an executive session of the regular school board meeting and that he was given no options to remain as superintendent.
Leigh’s appeal hearing spanned three days since January in regards to the non-board approved purchase of two Ford Edge SUVs for the district’s police department that was implemented last summer.
On the final day, he gave testimony defending his professional reputation, his role in the lease agreement and his claim of school board members’ interference of his job responsibilities.
“I wrote a letter to the board in July about interference in my day-by-day operations and had arranged for the executive director [of the Mississippi School Boards Association] to speak to us about roles. I wasn’t meaning to be disrespectful with the letter. Three of the members said they couldn’t make the meeting and it was never rescheduled,” Leigh said.
Claims Leigh made mention of particular board members overriding his authority, which included calls to the Aberdeen Fire Chief to reevaluate the fire code of the gym and rescinding a graduation plan vote to use the football field after letters had been sent out regarding the change of location.
“Even at last year’s graduation, when we were at maximum capacity, some board members went to the door and told security to let certain people inside,” Leigh said.
Leigh’s attorney, Randolph Walker of Corinth, raised questions regarding the district’s fund balance upon assuming his position as superintendent in June 2009.
“A school district is required to have a seven-percent fund balance minimum, but it wasn’t at that figure when I took the job and hadn’t been in some time. The MDE states to have a plan in place to increase the balance,” Leigh said.
He accredited Aberdeen’s shrinking tax base and reduction in state and federal funds as part of the ASD’s budget shortfall.
Before going into executive session, school board attorney Michael Winfield of Vicksburg cross-examined Leigh about the district’s budget.
Winfield asked how a school district could go substantially into the red while claiming that overspending was tremendous during Leigh’s tenure.
Before the executive session, Winfield also asked Leigh if he was trying to “pass the buck” to former financial manager, Phonecia Witherspoon, who was terminated at the same December school board meeting that Leigh was dismissed. Winfield continued to say Witherspoon’s testimony didn’t coincide with Leigh’s in regards to the dealership where the vehicles were purchased.
Leigh stated he wasn’t aware that two quotes had not been obtained for the purchase of the vehicles and that former board attorney Bennie Jones approached the school board with options in legitimately funding the vehicles.
“We had a meeting in mid-September with a plan on how the cars could be paid for and also how they could be used for district travel. As opposed to paying 51 cents per mile, we would have saved $31,000. Some board members made statements that they didn’t want that because some administrators may tear the vehicles up,” Leigh said.
Since assuming the position as the ASD’s superintendent, the district elevated two rankings from At Risk of Failing to Academic Watch. The termination is the first tarnish on Leigh’s 30-year career as an educator.
“In hindsight, I would have followed the business manager’s steps more closely in the purchase of the vehicles and itemized each piece of equipment for the department to eliminate confusion,” Leigh said.
The summary from Leigh’s appeal hearing will be presented to the school board to determine the fate of Leigh’s contract, which ends in June 2013. If need be, the record of the hearing will be forwarded to chancery court for review.