Tupelo's school board voted 4-1 in a specially called meeting at the Hancock Leadership Center on Monday morning to hire a hearing officer rather than hear Ellis' appeal directly. Rob Hudson cast the dissenting vote.
The hearing officer will be John Compton, the school board attorney for both the Meridian and Lauderdale County School Districts, and someone with extensive experience with school personnel hearings.
The date for the hearing was not set, but it must begin by Nov. 30 unless both sides agree to an extension.
Ellis was fired Oct. 28 for reasons that have not yet been fully disclosed. The district presented him with a list of charges, but neither side has elaborated what the charges are or how many exist.
Ellis' attorney David Butts said that some charges are serious and some are "nit-picky."
He said neither he nor Ellis has been given details about some of the charges. For instance, he said one charge is that Ellis left three students behind at a mall in Alabama during a field trip. He said Ellis doesn't know anything about that and hasn't been given the names of the students, when or where it took place.
Butts said another charge involved not talking to another teacher for two months. He did not elaborate on the more serious charges, noting that it would require more than a brief description and response to defend Ellis on those.
The school district is prevented by law from commenting on personnel decisions. The hearing process is different than that of a criminal trial in that it is not governed by the same rules requiring disclosing evidence to opposing counsel.
Butts spoke at Monday's meeting and requested that the board hear the appeal, rather than a hearing officer. The board, which will ultimately decide whether or not to uphold Ellis' dismissal, should be present to judge the credibility of witnesses, Butts said.
School Board Attorney Otis Tims recommended the use of a hearing officer because that person brings training and experience and helps insulate the process since he or she is from outside the area.
"A hearing officer is a professional, trained and experienced in the handling of hearings," Tupelo School Board President Amy Heyer said in a district news release distributed after the vote had been taken.
The hearing officer will present a transcript of the proceeding to the board, which will make its decision within 30 days of the hearing's conclusion.
The report will prioritize the relevant details and may or may not contain a recommendation, Tims said.