By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Calvin Ellis sat silently moments after a school board meeting to discuss his termination had concluded.
Exactly five months after Tupelo Public School District Interim Superintendent David Meadows had ended Ellis’ employment as a choral director at Tupelo High School, the board upheld that decision with a 3-1 vote.
Sitting in a corner of the room near his wife, Jauna, Ellis appeared discouraged while the board announced its decision. The issue has sparked much discussion, division and frustration in the community, but at that instant, the conference room inside the Hancock Leadership Center became very quiet.
“We are disappointed and dismayed at the decision of the Board,” Ellis’ attorney, David Butts, said shortly afterward in a prepared statement. “This is a sad day for Calvin Ellis, his wife and family and for many of the faculty and students of the Tupelo Public School District.”
Ellis declined comment, noting the moment was too emotional.
No decision has been made on whether Ellis will appeal the decision to Lee County Chancery Court, said Butts, who represented Ellis pro bono. An appeal would need to be filed within 20 days.
The board’s vote was 3-1, with Eddie Prather, Beth Stone and Amy Heyer voting to support the administration’s decision. Rob Hudson was the dissenting vote. The board currently has only four members because Lee Tucker’s term expired at the beginning of the month, and a replacement has not yet been appointed.
“The Board is of the opinion that Mr. Ellis is a talented musician who is passionate about helping his students succeed,” the board said in a document explaining its decision. “At the same time, the evidence demonstrated and the Board is of the opinion that his single-minded devotion to the success of his students at times clouded Mr. Ellis’ judgment and caused him to make decisions incongruent with district policy and the Mississippi Educator Code of Ethics.”
The statement said that Ellis “neglected his responsibilities as a teacher properly to supervise the activities of his students” and that he “was less than forthcoming with the district’s administration and with the parents of his students.”
Board attorney Otis Tims said there wasn’t one determining factor to the board’s vote.
Hudson declined comment about his vote.
After he was fired, Ellis was given a list of 23 charges against him. He insisted that he was innocent of them and contested them in a public personnel hearing that was held over 10 days in December, January and February.
Butts and Ellis each made a statement to the school board on Monday. Afterward, each said Ellis made mistakes but they did not believe those mistakes warranted his firing.
The board received a 2,400-page transcript from the hearing, including the testimony of 23 witnesses and 96 exhibits. It reviewed that transcript, plus a report made by hearing officer John Compton and the statements made by Ellis and Butts. Compton’s report was not publicly released because it is a personnel record.
The board met in executive session to discuss the issue last week and also met in closed session on each of the last four days, including an hour and 45-minute discussion on Wednesday before it announced its decision.
“The Board has continued to lead this school district down the path of mediocrity, and today turned its back on a successful teacher whose show choirs have gained regional and even national recognition,” Butts said.
Prather, the board president, said it has been “a difficult and intense process, and we appreciate the cooperative spirit with which all parties have conducted themselves.
“And now that this matter is concluded, we look forward to moving forward with renewed effort to strengthen the educational opportunities available to the children of our district,” he said in a prepared statement.
Meadows said the district “recognizes how difficult this process has been for all parties involved and remains committed to serving its students and staff with highest integrity.”
The issue has been a divisive one, and many of Ellis’ supporters expressed their frustration after the board’s vote.
“The school board had a perfect opportunity today to correct the wrong that had been done, and there was only one person willing to read over the facts and come to the conclusion that the decision against Calvin was not warranted,” said Kevin Holman, whose daughter began the year in Ellis’ show choir. “They got rid of one of the best teachers they ever had at this school, and the problems are still there.”
Parent John Sanders, whose daughter also began the year in the show choir, said he was “very disappointed by the board’s decision.”
The Rev. Charles Penson, a supporter of Ellis who had attended much of the hearing, said that he too was disappointed and that he did not believe that Ellis was given an opportunity to correct his mistakes before he was terminated.
“I think it went too fast, too far, too soon,” he said. “I just hope the community will be able to get through this. There has been enough disruption as it is.”
Statement from David Butts
We are disapointed and dismayed at the decision of the Board. This is a sad day for Calvin Ellis, his wife and family and for many of the faculty and students of the Tupelo Public School District. Everyone knows that the evidence we brought forth at the hearing proved Mr. Ellis’ innocence of the charges. The Board has continued to lead this school district down the path of mediocrity, and today turned its back on a successful teacher whose show choirs have gained regional and even national recognition. This decision is not only a loss for Calvin Ellis but a loss for every student and parent in the district who love the performing arts. No decision has been made about an appeal at this time, but if we do appeal, we are confident the courts will reject such an unjust decision.”
Statement from TPSD Interim Superintendent David Meadows
TPSD recognizes how difficult this process has been for all parties involved and remains committed to serving its students and staff with the highest integrity