THS principal, others testify in Ellis hearing

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

Click here for live coverage in Chris Kieffer’s blog

TUPELO – More details of the events surrounding Calvin Ellis’ termination emerged on Monday during the fourth day of the hearing for the former Tupelo High School choral director.
THS Principal Jason Harris was among four witnesses to testify Monday as the hearing resumed from a recess that began on Dec. 7.
Harris testified that his first notification of a Sept. 30 prank involving boys in Ellis’ Wave Connection show choir came on Monday, Oct. 3. when Interim Superintendent David Meadows told Harris he had received a phone call from a concerned parent. Two parents visited the principal the next day to tell him about the incident, and Harris began an investigation by interviewing all of the boys and most of the girls involved, he said.
Harris gave the information from those interviews to Meadows, who was the one who made the decision to fire Ellis, Harris said.
The prank occurred on a night in which the girls in the Wave Connection show choir were gathered at a parent’s house, and the boys were at Ellis’ house. It happened after those girls had gone to where boys had parked their cars and wrote things on those cars, Harris testified.
“The boys found out and wanted to retaliate,” Harris said, noting that they used Vaseline, condoms, bananas and car paint to pull a prank on the girls’ cars.
Ellis later told Harris that he did not know that the boys had bought condoms and that his “biggest mistake” was that he did not look in the students’ bags to see what was in them when he had gone with them to Walmart, Harris said.
The principal testified that he was more concerned that the choral director had been in a car with students at that late hour, near midnight, and that if an accident had occurred, it would be difficult to defend that.
“Probably his mistake was being in the car, period,” Harris said.
Under cross examination, Ellis’ attorney, David Butts, asked Harris about how much of an opportunity Ellis had been given to defend himself on the 23 charges the district presented to him when it fired the choral director. Butts asked Harris whether it was procedure to give a teacher an opportunity to defend himself before taking administrative action.
Harris said that it is the superintendent’s decision and that he is not aware of any policy that requires such procedure.
Meanwhile, Tupelo choral instructor Suzy White Williams testified that when she first reported to the school in August, she was told that she would be teaching five classes, including Madrigals, but that her schedule was changed a few days later. In the new version, she was only teaching two classes, was no longer teaching Madrigals and was a coach-assistant for several classes.
Williams testified that she asked Ellis about her changed schedule and that he told her that he was the director of choral activities, that he decides who teaches what and that he had the right to teach Madrigals.
She said that her understanding of coach-assistant was that it was someone who was there to help only if needed.
Under cross examination, Williams said that she did not know who changed her schedule.
Rachel Murphree, Tupelo’s assistant finance director, testified that she saw several issues of concern when she reviewed the choral booster club’s books, including songs that were paid for and not used in shows. She also said that Ellis was also paid to arrange several songs for which the boosters also paid others to arrange the same song.
Butts argued on cross examination that all of the money spent was booster club money and not taxpayer money. He also argued that Murphree was not an expert on whether show choir arrangements need to be redone to fit in a show and that the boosters never asked Ellis to pay back any of his expenses.
Parent Tammy Harrington, a former booster club secretary, also testified on Monday. The hearing resumes at 8:30 this morning at the Hancock Leadership Center.

Click here for live coverage in Chris Kieffer’s blog

chris.kieffer@journalinc.com