After a four hour executive session, the Clarke County Board of Education placed Superintendent Dr. Demond Means on administrative leave after a called meeting Monday afternoon.
When the board returned from the private discussion without Dr. Means present, Dr. Tish Yager (District 4) put forward a motion to place Dr. Means on administrative leave and appoint Chief of Staff Dr. Xernona Thomas to CEO until an interim is appointed.
School board members Greg Davis (District 1), Dr. Kara Dyckman (District 5), Dr. John Knox (District 8), Dr. Tawana Mattox (District 9) and Yager voted in favor of the motion. Board President Dr. Lakeisha Gantt voted against the motion along with Charles Worthy (District 6) and Linda Davis (District 3).
Dr. Means has been vocal about the racial and academic disparities that exist in Clarke County, and Means’ supporters say that is why they hoped he would remain in his position.
Athens NAACP Chapter 5180 President Alvin Sheats, a Cedar Shoals graduate, says that Dr. Means has improved test scores throughout the district, and before the board announced their decision, Sheats hoped Dr. Means would be allowed to finish out his contract which ends in June 2021.
“There’s a saying going around Clarke County right now: white children are being prepared for Yale, while the black children are being prepared for jail. That’s a nightmare. There’s something wrong with that picture,” Sheats said.
Sheats also says that the BOE’s scheduling of the meeting limited citizens’ ability to attend. Sheats is confident the school board intentionally scheduled the meeting in this way.
“It’s kind of odd that this called meeting is at 3:30 in the day, when people are at work. That’s an irritant. If you really wanted public support, if you wanted to be transparent, you’d be more accommodatable to people’s work schedule,” Sheats said.
Billy Wilhite, a Clarke Central graduate, says BOE’s conduct has been detrimental to relationships with Dr. Means.
“It’s just ridiculous. If you did anything concerning that (BOE conduct) in your schools, you would be suspended or expelled,” Wilhite said. “This is totally inappropriate for people who are supposed to be professionals.”
Tensions between the board and Dr. Means peaked when a complaint was filed with accreditation agency AdvancEd alleging board members micromanaged and undermined Dr. Means’ work. An investigation by AdvancEd could result in Clarke County losing accreditation. Dr. Gantt did not know what the future of that complaint would be following the board’s vote to place Dr. Means on leave.
Hours into the meeting, Mary Bagby stood in front of the empty commissioner chairs, delivering a speech urging the audience to pray that the BOE change its expected course to remove Dr. Means from office. Bagby formerly applied for the District 2 Board of Education seat recently vacated by Frances Berry who resigned last month.
“We can storm the windows of heaven. Heaven is open to us, and we don’t have to keep letting these people destroy our children,” Bagby said to a responsive room. “I don’t care if you’re an atheist or what. We believe in God. We believe in a holy, righteous god. Eternal life, and everybody that’s taking money under the table in this city, to hurt us. God is going to use what you take, behind closed doors. God is going to use it for kindling to burn some people in hell.”
Bagby went on to accuse district officials of taking bribes, offering no substantiation for the claims.
Janet Frick, a parent of two Clarke County high school students, says that people in positions of privilege will need to make sacrifices to achieve equity. But she also says some of the pushback against Dr. Means is in response to his spending, including hiring Wisconsin law firms for legal advice and an audit of the district’s handling of the alleged rape at Cedar Shoals High School in 2016.
“Let’s put our money, not into paying tens of thousands of dollars for outside legal consultants and professional development for Dr. Means. Let’s put it into proven, evidence based approaches: smaller class sizes and reading specialists,” Frick said.
When Yager motioned to place Dr. Means on administrative leave, she said “I was just going to give my gratitude to Dr. Means, for starting this district on the right path.” She said she hoped the new superintendent continued in the direction Dr. Means started.
William Breeding wasn’t surprised with the result of the executive session, but he was disappointed. He believes there will be an overhaul in board personnel in the near future.
“We are hoping that the professional accreditation unit will get in, because we do need quite a few members replaced on that board,” Breeding said.
Breeding does not expect the BOE to keep Dr. Thomas to remain as superintendent following her time as chief executive.
“If they (BOE) get a black person, they want someone that can sing, dance, and sing ‘Dixie,’” Breeding said. “If they get a white person, I think that may solve it for maybe three of them. But hopefully, the accreditation board will get in here, see what has gone on, and make a recommendation that we might need a semi-clean slate.”