Friday, October 14, 2011

TOP STORY > >Principal loses job at a long hearing

Leader staff writer

The meeting room and hallways at the administrative office for Cabot schools were full for a Wednesday night hearing of the the school board, which decided Suzanne Proctor would not get to keep her job as principal at Northside Elementary School be-cause she went out of state for several days without telling anyone.

Two Cabot police officers stood against the wall inside the boardroom to keep the peace after one officer reported overhearing in the crowd that there would be trouble if the board ruled against the principal.

Teachers, parents and even a few students were on hand to hear the fate of the woman they described as going far beyond job requirements to see to the needs of students and parents.

Some, including Proctor’s attorney, Charles Finkenbinder, complained that Proctor re-quested an open public hearing and she didn’t get that since her supporters were forced to stand outside.

It took about six hours of opening statements from lawyers and testimony from witnesses and almost an hour of deliberation for the board to reach its decision.

They voted unanimouslyagainst Proctor and upheld Dr. Tony Thurman’s decision as superintendent to fire her.

“We must hold our administrators to the highest level of accountability,” board president Dean Martin said of the decision.

Proctor’s attorney said he would likely file an appeal in circuit court within two weeks.

Proctor’s offense was undisputed:

She left her job for three days around the Memorial Day holiday: Sept. 1, Sept. 2 and Sept. 6. She went without asking, even though she knew she was required to tell Thurman if she was out of her building for six hours or more.

She went on a vacation, even though she knew the assistant principal would also be away.

She left her building without an official in charge, except for a veteran counselor and classroom teachers. But Proctor said, “I didn’t abandon the children or their parents. I have a very capable staff.”

Where she “messed up,” she said was in not telling Thurman she was leaving.

The question the board had to answer, her attorney said during his opening statement, was what should happen next.

“Does the board have to trash her career or can they do something else?” Finkenbinder asked. “Can they back the superintendent and still preserve her career?

“She is an exemplary, effective principal,” he said. “There were a number of options, but the district chose the harshest one.

“She made a mistake. It was an error in judgment. She should have known better and something should be done, but not termination,” the lawyer said.

Thurman learned on Sept. 6 that Proctor was out of her building when K-6 curriculum director, Dr. Harold Jeffcoat, stopped by for a classroom walk-through and reported her absence.

It was during his interview with Proctor after she returned on Sept. 7 that Thurman said he learned that she was away during the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death.

If she had told him she needed time off even though the assistant principal was also scheduled off, he would have found a way to cover her building and granted her request, he testified.

“Why could you have not done that?” Clint McGue, attorney for the district, asked Proctor.

“I wish I knew,” Proctor said. “I made a mistake. I made a terrible mistake.”

Although the specific reason for the termination was that Proctor left her building unattended, Thurman testified that he could no longer trust Proctor because she wasn’t completely truthful with him when she returned, and he believed she had told some of her staff not to cooperate with him during his investigation—even though she was told to not contact any of them during her suspension.

Plus, she had no regard for rules and procedures, he said.

McGue said that Proctor was not grieving on the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death but on a beach in Florida.

Thurman testified that her explanation for leaving was that she needed some time off.

Testimony from two employees revealed that she was with a friend named Bobby, and that she had not appeared to be grieving or distraught before she left.

McGue pointed out that her trip with her friend was originally scheduled for a week earlier, which was not the anniversary of her husband’s death and she had planned that trip without asking for time off either.

Thurman said it was obvious that the parents love Proctor, he said, “She put her own personal wants above the needs of the district.”

“There is no way to make a decision that bad seem right,” he said.

“I can think of no good reason why any principal entrusted with so many kids would think it’s OK to just leave,” he said.

Two parents testified for Proctor, telling the board what she did may have been wrong but that her staff was capable of taking care of emergencies. And they wanted her to stay.

Chad Hale said he never heard anyone say anything bad about Proctor. She helped his son who was being bullied, Hale said.

Mike Lambert said she always helped him with his sons’ issues.

“I always leave feeling better,” Lambert said.

Proctor should be disciplined but not discharged, he said.

“If she instills the right qualities in her staff, she can be a good leader even if she’s not there,” he said.

But the highest praise came from Cindy Stinnett, Proctor’s secretary.

Stinnett denied claims that Proctor was out of the office frequently for beauty appointments and noted that Proctor’s glitzy appearance was only a fraction of the person she is.

Proctor often worked through lunch, on weekends and evenings, she said. But where she stood out the most was with the students.

“Kids go to her office just to get hugs,” Stinnett said. “She genuinely loves those kids and they know it. They love her.”

“Do other principals love their kids?” McGue asked.

“I’m sure they do, but they surely don’t show it like she does,” Stinnett said.

Although she didn’t give a reason for not telling Thurman that she was taking personal days, Proctor maintained that grief was the motivation. Her husband died in September 2010 and she coped by working.

By March she said she was beginning to feel like she would get through it. But as the anniversary approached she felt like she had to get away.

As for going with a male companion, she turned to the audience and said there was not a woman in the room who wouldn’t have done the same thing.

“I didn’t want to be home alone wallowing in self-pity,” she said.

Thurman said Proctor’s contract ended Wednesday night with the board’s decision. However, she is entitled to pay for any accrued vacation, sick leave or personal leave.

Michele French, the former principal at Ward Elementary, has been filling in at Northside since Proctor was suspended with pay on Sept. 8 and will continue there indefinitely.

When asked if considering the swell of support for Proctor if he has had second thoughts about firing her instead of opting for a lesser punishment, Thurman said, “We considered every option for punishment in regard to the actions of Ms. Proctor but ultimately felt that termination was most appropriate.”

As for the support from the parents, Thurman said the district administration expects all its principals to build that sort of relationship within their school community.

Thurman explained Friday why the overflow crowd couldn’t get into the hearing room:

“My regard to complaints that they weren’t allowed into the hearing...We’ve had a couple complaint calls regarding the fact that not everyone had a seat inside the boardroom during the hearing,” he said.

“We have held every previous termination hearing in the same location. Ms. Proctor has attended many meetings including a termination hearing in this room and was aware of how many it could accommodate and was notified of exactly where it would be held well in advance.

“Neither Ms. Proctor nor her attorney notified the district that they were requesting the meeting be held in an alternate location as to provide every person with a seat that chose to attend. The district would have certainly moved the meeting had a request been received,” Thurman said.

“We made it a priority to make sure the media was provided the opportunity to be present since this would guarantee the validity of an open meeting and ensure the story would be presented to the public,” Thurman said.