Board at odds over hiring freeze, virtual academy

Split board votes to continue mask mandate

TOUGH DECISIONS – The Humboldt School Board tackled an array of agenda items at the last meeting. Among those were seeking a hiring freeze until the new superintendent is in place, creating a new school – Virtual Learning Academy, and approving bonuses for non-certified staff.

by Danny Wade

The Humboldt School Board had a lengthy agenda to go through during their May 13 meeting. Some of the items included bonuses, creating a new virtual school, tenure for teachers and mask mandate.

At the beginning of the school board meeting when approving the agenda, board member Mark Hodge requested adding a new item—hiring freeze. The board approved the amended item 3-2 with Hodge, Leon McNeal and Wayne McLemore voting for the amendment, while board chair Valeria Wedley and vice chair Terry Johnson voted against the amended agenda.

The item was added at the end of the agenda. When this item came to the floor, Wedley said she was concerned that a hiring freeze was against school policy.

McLemore read an email from board attorney Chuck Cagle, which stated the school board does have the authority to have a hiring freeze.

Hodge requested the freeze in order for the new superintendent have input in hiring staff for the upcoming school year. Hodge also spoke about the budget and how the board is behind in working on the budget. He thinks the new superintendent should have input in the budget as well.

Wedley was firmly against a hiring freeze. She said the state will not allow a change in hiring. Wedley added that there might not be a superintendent in place and they could still have interim superintendent Lillian Shelton.

Wedley added that a hiring freeze would stop the board from hiring a superintendent.

Hodge motioned to have a hiring freeze for all teachers and staff, except for hiring a superintendent. McLemore seconded the motion. The motion failed with a vote of 2-2-1, with McNeal abstaining.

•The board approved tenure for nine teachers: Rose Carmichael, Danielle Hicks, Audrey Jones, Amy Little, David Robbins, Anthony Ballard, Mindy Bufford, Tony Kendall and Delaney Naffziger.

Hodge asked interim superintendent Shelton if this list was for everyone eligible for tenure.

Shelton replied there was one teacher eligible that will not be rehired.

Hodge remarked, “That’s strange.”

•Shelton requested the board approve giving all non-certified staff a $250 bonus. She noted that certified teachers received a $500 bonus, approved by the state. The non-certified bonuses would come from savings of not using as many substitute teachers this school year.

McLemore said these bonuses were considerably less than what other school districts in the county are giving their staffs.

Shelton said with the new round of ESSER funding, the school system could give $5,000 bonuses. They are waiting for state approval.

•There was much discussion on creating a new school within Humboldt City Schools, Virtual Learning Academy. Last month, the option to create the new school was discussed but the board asked for more information.

Board members received that information in their board packets for last week’s meeting. According to data gathered by Technology Director Wayne Sheehan, a survey of parents and students showed 19 families were interested in a Virtual Academy, as were 34 students.

Wedley said people are confused thinking this will be the same as home school but it’s instead a satellite location.

Sheehan said it would be an entirely new school within Humboldt City Schools and would have 7-hour days. There would be a school director and other staff.

Sheehan noted Humboldt would be the only school in Gibson County to create a Virtual Academy and if Humboldt decides to establish the school it would be competing with Jackson-Madison County Schools for students. It was also noted students within Humboldt’s school district would receive some city funds just like now but state money would follow the student to Humboldt no matter what school district the student(s) lives in.

There were still unanswered questions and Sheehan said it would be a learning process.

McLemore questioned if students could sign up, then leave.

Wedley was all for the Virtual Academy. She said Humboldt could “do it” and keep their students or “not do it” and students would go to another school district. She believes Humboldt would be a model for other school districts.

Johnson said the thinks virtual schools are a wave of the future.

McNeal said he had too many questions to support a Virtual Academy. He said the school system should take care the current system the way it is now.

The board voted not to create the new schools, Virtual Learning Academy, by a 3-2 vote with Wedley and Johnson voting for the new school.

•Another topic board members were split on was whether or not to continue the mask mandate for students. Shelton noted Governor Bill Lee had lifted the mandate but gave schools the ability to make their own decisions.

Shelton noted summer school would begin soon and wanted to include the board’s decision in the handbook.

Hodge suggested wearing masks be optional and left up to the student and parents.

Johnson wanted to know what the teachers thought about wearing masks. A few in attendance of the board meeting said they will continue to wear masks. One person noted students cannot get the vaccine yet and can still be carriers of COVID.

The board voted 3-1-1 to continue with the mask mandate with Hodge voting no and McLemore abstaining.

Shelton and Wedley noted this topic could be revisited at any time.

•The board discussed implementing an auto body class at the high school. Not long ago, there was an auto body class that folded. Shelton said there is equipment still in the building but would need $50,000 to bring it up to date. Shelton also said the school has applied for a $1.4 million grant and funds from the grant can be used for CTE courses.

There was discussion over the class being auto body or auto mechanics. Sheehan said it could be two different programs using the same classroom space.

McLemore said he would support the program only if it has a state certified instructor.

Hodge said he was all for vo-tech classes but cannot “vote for a blank check” for creating the new program.

The board voted 4-1 to approve the new auto body and mechanic class with Hodge casting the lone nay vote.

•During the superintendent’s report, Shelton announced the P-EBT program will continue to feed students during the summer. Parents can get the card reloaded.

Shelton said there are 140 students enrolled for summer school, which is being funded by the state. Students will receive breakfast and lunch, and buses will run. Shelton asked parents to send their students to summer school to help with learning loss due to the pandemic.

Shelton’s final report was plans to continue offering African-American history class as well as adding more AP courses for the next school year.

•During the concerned citizens portion of the meeting, East Elementary School math teacher Abby Lohrum addressed the board regarding her not being offered tenure and instead receiving a non-renewal notice.

Lohrum said she does more than teach math. She also volunteers for other jobs at East such as assisting with bus lines and serving on committees.

Lohrum said her students’ scores have increased each year and she was a nominee for Teacher of the Year.

Lohrum believes board policies were violated pertaining to her non-renewal notice, particularly the school board policy stating the board must be notified of all non-renewals.

McNeal seemed astonished that a teacher, particularly a math teacher, would not be rehired, especially one with nominated for Teacher of the Year and having students’ test scores rising.

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