By Chris Kieffer | NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Arguments resume on Monday in a Tupelo school personnel hearing that has stoked community passions.
At issue is whether Calvin Ellis, fired as Tupelo High School choral director on Oct. 28, will be reinstated in his former job. Both Ellis and his attorney, David Butts, contend the district’s 23 charges against him are untrue and his termination was improper.
In the months since his termination, the case has become a source for intense debate, hurt feelings and public distrust in the school district.
Ellis’ supporters say the school district mishandled its treatment of the popular choral director and the case is symptomatic of larger issues.
“I think there are some generalizations from that hearing that you could take and show that it was broader than the firing of one teacher,” said parent Carrie Haadsma.
Haadsma, the mother of six children including a senior who began the year in Ellis’ show choir, said she has long been a supporter of the public school district. However, she said she has concerns with the way Ellis was treated and feels communication with parents in the group was lacking.
Since Ellis was terminated, a group of parents and students supporting Ellis has been large, dedicated and vocal. A Facebook page for “Team Ellis” has received more than 830 likes, and others have written that moniker on their car windows. They’ve raised money, held meetings and attended the first three days of the hearing.
Even those not directly involved with the Ellis situation have been critical of the way it has been handled.
“I am concerned about the way our school administration and the board has processed Mr. Ellis’ situation,” said John Robbins, who does not have any connection to the show choir program. “In my opinion, if I operated my personal business the way the school administration handled that situation, I would have many issues.”
Robbins joined a group of residents that recently met and expressed frustration with the school district and administration. From that meeting emerged signs some people have posted in their front yards, calling attention to perceived problems.
The group’s members say their concerns are much broader than Ellis’ situation and their goal is to foster communication that brings solutions. Many of them have said, though, Ellis’ situation speaks to those larger problems.
Others, meanwhile, have said that the hearing has overshadowed good things that are happening in the schools.
“I am happy with our schools,” said Lori Robertson, co-president of the PTO at Tupelo Middle School. “I do think they have problems and are not perfect, but I think there is an opportunity for us in the future to focus on the positive aspects of our schools.
“I don’t think it has been beneficial to our community as a whole the way this has escalated.”
The issue may not be over anytime soon, either. When the public hearing resumes at 9 a.m. on Monday at the Hancock Leadership Center, it will end a recess of nearly two months. After three days of testimony from Dec. 5-7, hearing officer John Compton and attorney Jim Keith, who is representing the school district, had a scheduling conflict that prompted the recess.
Jan. 30 was chosen for the resumption because it was the earliest all parties could commit for an entire week, and it could take that whole time. Whenever testimony is completed, the school board will have a month to read the lengthy transcript of the testimony and vote upon Ellis’ fate. If the choral director is unsuccessful, he could then appeal.
The hearing has been costly for the school district, which already has paid more than $64,000 in legal fees related to investigating Ellis and the subsequent hearing.
That total was revealed by a Daily Journal public records request. It will climb as the hearing continues and also does not include several fees that have not been billed yet.
From Oct. 3 through Jan. 7, the district has paid its administrative counsel, Kelly Stimpson, $35,049.21 for her work on this issue, plus an additional $2,885.02 for her travel expenses from her home in Montana. It has paid the law firm Mitchell, McNutt amp& Sams, which represents the school board, $10,650.06 for its work on the issue between Oct. 11 and Nov. 30.
The Adams and Reese law firm, which employs Keith, billed the school district $12,761.14 for its work on the case in October and November. The district also paid a court reporter $3,379.05 for preparing a transcript of the hearing.
Hearing officer Compton hasn’t sent a bill yet. His rate is $200 an hour and includes the time he spends traveling from Meridian to Tupelo. Mitchell, McNutt amp& Sams as well as Keith have not sent a bill for their work during the first three days of the hearing. Mitchell, McNutt amp& Sams charged $125 per hour for its other work, and Keith charged $320 per hour for other work.
Ellis’ supporters and others cite the cost as a waste of district money and a reason the case against the former choral director should not have been pursued.
TPSD Interim Superintendent David Meadows said state laws on licensed educational personnel protect employee rights, noting this process includes conducting a “fair and impartial investigation of the facts,” a hearing and possible appeals.
Meadows said that protection means it can become very expensive for districts not to renew a teacher’s contract or to terminate an educator. He noted appeals to circuit and chancery courts, as have already occurred in Ellis’ case, also can escalate costs.
“It does become expensive as far as the law is laid out and that can make a district consider long and hard how a decision is made against a licensed employee,” Meadows said. “I see that as a protection of the employee, and I support that protection.
“That is something a superintendent would consider. In the end, a superintendent would have to make a decision for the protection of students and try to do what is best for students.”
Some of Ellis’ supporters also have questioned the district’s use of Stimpson, who lives outside of Mississippi, as its administrative counsel.
The district must pay for her travel costs to and from Montana, but Meadows said her $94.92 hourly rate is “very reasonable.” He also said she usually stays with friends when in town, so the district does not fund her lodging.
“I really have an issue with the fact that our district’s attorney is living in Montana,” Haadsma said. “It is not just the cost. There are a few attorneys in town.
“Also, this is a really personal situation and a difficult situation for everyone involved. It should be handled by people who have a stake in our community.”
Stimpson has been TPSD’s counsel for about 12 years and lived in Tupelo before moving to Montana a few years ago. Meadows said she brings an invaluable “historical background” because of her long service to the district and because she has an expertise in educational law.
Technology allows her to communicate with the district, Meadows said. She often does so via Internet video during school board meetings.
The hearing’s first three days featured three witnesses, all called by school district attorneys.
Meadows testified that a Sept. 30 prank sparked an investigation that eventually led to Ellis’ dismissal. The prank involved boys in the show choir messing up the cars of girls in the group with condoms, bananas, Vaseline and shaving cream. Other witnesses spoke of concerns about Ellis not having copyright permissions for Wave Connection songs and about the finances of the group’s booster club.
Butts has not yet had the opportunity to present Ellis’ defense. He said when he does, Ellis will be the first witness he calls.
“We are looking forward to getting started where we have an opportunity to present evidence on Calvin’s behalf and present Calvin himself to refute the charges,” Butts said last week. “We are just eager to get back to the hearing.”
Butts said he expects to take about two days to present Ellis’ case.
Once the hearing is completed, the district’s school board will decide Ellis’ fate. Supporters of the choir director have expressed frustration with the board, saying it has not been receptive to their concerns.
They also were upset they were not allowed to address the board about Ellis’ situation. Board attorney Otis Tims said because it involved a personnel matter, it was against policy to hear public comment about it at a board meeting.
Supporters also have expressed concern that Ellis was not given advance notice of the charges against him and was not given feedback before he was fired or opportunities to improve his performance.
“I think we should never think about firing someone who didn’t have a poor review,” Haadsma said. “If there are issues, they should be brought up and worked on, especially if you are bringing up things from years past.”
Meadows said he could not comment specifically on Ellis’ case at this time. In general, he said, the district takes teacher evaluations seriously. He said administrators observe all educators in their classrooms and have several meetings with them throughout the year.
Teachers are given formative evaluations, Meadows said, designed to help teachers focus on areas in which they can improve, in addition to year-end evaluations that determine whether or not those teachers are renewed. He said educators are also asked to determine personal growth areas.
Meadows cited Mississippi’s new Educator Code of Conduct, released by the state Department of Education before the current school year.
Meadows said the new code has heightened superintendent responsibility to report inappropriate conduct by teachers and has raised requirements for administrative oversight.