By c E. Peek,
Mark Winningham knew the history when he took the job. At the time of his hiring as Overton County Director of Schools in 2016, he was the fifth person hired for the position in four years, so it should not have been a very big surprise last week when he was unceremoniously removed from the position, even though his current contract has an end date of June 30, 2022.
Along with Winningham being designated for assignment, Donnie Holman was given the helm of the school system as interim director.
The sudden changes occurred in the Tuesday, Jan. 12 regular monthly meeting of Overton County Board of Education, with all members attending in-person.
As is necessary for such action, the director of schools contract was at the top of the agenda for the night and when the item was read, School Board member Wayne Taylor said, “I make the motion to transfer the director to another position.”
And School Board member Ricky Dodson seconded the motion.
School Board member Dolphus Dial asked, “Has anyone talked to Mr. Winningham?”
“Yes, sir, I have spoken with Mr. Winningham,” Chairman Jarman Hicks said.
He went on to say, “During our conversation, Mr. Winningham felt that the relationship between himself and the Board is not what it should be and doesn’t know if that could be corrected or changed.”
Dial asked when this was decided.
“We’ve discussed this twice over the last couple months since his contract was under discussion and review,” Chairman Hicks said.
Pointing to the school district’s proclivity for changing directors, Dial said, “The only thing that I want to say about this whole situation is that in 10 years we’ve went through I don’t know how many director of schools. It seems like when a new Board comes on, they’re ready to change that director for someone else. And I’m sure, probably two years down the road, I won’t be here, but it’ll happen again.”
School Board member Mitchell Stonecipher, who joined the Board this past September, took exception to Dial’s observation.
“So, the comment was made that every time there’s a new Board... there’s a new election every two years... and there’s new people rolling on and rolling off. Those elections are for the public to decide whether or not they’re happy with the direction the schools are going. And those representatives of those districts, including me, including you, are chosen to execute the will of the people.
“And so, when you say there’s a new Board, it’s kind of me and Wayne Taylor, the new people on the Board, and Bruce (Hudgens), correct. And so, whenever the people speak, they want a change.
“So when people vote, they speak and they elect people to be the representative to execute their will. And so, that’s what we’re here for. You have a vote to represent your constituents, just like I do. And so, I’m going to execute mine based upon the performance that I’ve seen.”
Dial, who has served the 2nd District as a School Board member for almost 20 years now, having been elected to the seat in 2002, knows well the history of Overton County changing directors when members join the Board.
After the last elected Overton County Superintendent of Schools, Edwin Garrett, was taken out of the position by action of the Tennessee State Legislature that took away the people’s direct vote, Kenneth Dodson became the first appointed Director of Schools late in 1994 with a 2-year contract, and at the end of that contract, Dolphus Dial became the second appointed Overton County Director of Schools in 1996.
He was appointed by a 7-member School Board, which included two at-large members who attended their last meeting in August 1996 because the same legislation that took away the vote for school superintendent also did away with countywide at-large members. Overton County Commission petitioned the state in 1998 to increase the School Board to 10 members.
The request was granted and five more members were added to Overton County School Board in 1999, and after the new members were appointed and took their seats on the Board, Dial was removed, though his contract had to be paid.
Eldon Davis replaced Dial, and then resigned in December 2000.
He was followed by Bill Needham, who was first hired as interim and ended up serving from December 2000 to 2006 – the longest anyone appointed to the position has served, when he decided it was time for someone else to take the position.
That person was current School Board member Mike Gilpatrick, who served from 2006 to 2009, when he did not ask for a new contract.
Matt Eldridge was then hired and served until 2013, when he was not given a new contract.
After an initial failed attempt at hiring a school director, Janet Dudney Meadows was hired in June 2013 as interim director.
Pamela Smith-Gordon was then hired as the full-time director and took the position in August 2013. She resigned in January 2015, and Terry Webb was hired as interim director and served until 2016 when Mark Winningham was hired as the full-time director, and he was given a contract extension in 2018, which the remainder of that contract will now be paid with him serving in a lesser capacity.
School Board member William Abston asked, “What is going to be the cost of this overall?”
Chairman Hicks said that BEP allows $104,000 a year for the director’s contract, but Overton County has not paid that full amount to its director.
“We currently pay our director $87,000,” he said.
On the vote to reassign Winningham to another position, School Board members Hudgens, Mike Hayes, Taylor, Stonecipher, Dodson, and Chairman Hicks voted yes, and Dial, Abston, Larry Looper, and Mike Gilpatrick voted no.
The action left the placement of Winningham, who has tenure in the Overton County school system, in the hands of the interim director of schools, which was the next order of business.
Winningham, who had sat quietly near the back of the room, asked when the action that was just passed would go into effect.
Chairman Hicks told him, “I’m guessing immediately.”
“OK, thank you,” Winningham said as he got up and left the meeting.
Chairman Hicks made a motion to appoint Rickman Principal Donnie Holman as interim director of schools until the School Board enters into a contract with a “permanent” director. A deadline of June 30, 2022, the date of the end of Winningham’s contract, was set.
Abston asked, “Shouldn’t we be making nominations of who wants to be interim director?”
Dial also questioned the manner in which the appointment was being made.
“What bothers me more than anything,” Dial said, “I didn’t know anything about Mr. Holman. Who selected him? Who went to him and talked to him?”
Chairman Hicks said there would be a discussion if a second was made to the motion.
Dial continued to insist that a nomination process should be conducted to ask if others would be interested in the job, and Chairman Hicks asked Dial, “Who would you like to ask, your nephew? Who do you want to ask?”
“I don’t think he’d have it,” Dial answered.
Chairman Hicks asked for a second, and Taylor seconded the motion, and he then asked for a vote.
Hayes asked, “Have you spoke to Dr. Holman? Is he willing to take this?”
“Dr. Holman, I did not speak to him directly as if he would be a full-time director,” Chairman Hicks said. “Dr. Holman would fulfill whatever need the schools asked of him.”
Abston asked why this wasn’t being given to Vickie Eldridge, the assistant director, and Chairman Hicks answered that she is retiring at the end of the school year and if a “permanent” director was not hired by that time, the School Board would have to go through this process again.
Gilpatrick asked, “Are we paying out Dr. Winningham’s contract and also paying an interim director salary?”
“The interim director will stay on his current salary unless he is employed full-time as the director,” Chairman Hicks said.
Abston asked, “Do we have a contract made up for the interim director?”
“Not at this time,” Chairman Hicks answered.
Abston asked, “When will we be voting on that contract?”
Chairman Hicks said they would discuss that after the vote on the motion.
Budget Director Heather Melton, who was taking the minutes, asked for clarification on the motion.
“Let me make sure I’ve got this right,” Melton said. “We’re going to enter into a contract for interim director of schools with Donnie Holman, ending 6…”
“No, no, no,” Chairman Hicks interjected. “We’re not entering into a contract. We are appointing… I made the motion to appoint Dr. Holman as interim director. So, there will be no contract entering with Dr. Holman as interim director.”
She then clarified that the ending date is June 30, 2022.
“That’s the deadline,” Chairman Hicks said.
Hayes said, “So, regardless of who’s appointed the interim, the Board policy says that the interim director cannot apply for the full-time director position unless the Board clarifies that.”
“Yes,” said Chairman Hicks.
“So, are we OK with whoever the interim director is, applying for the full-time position?” Hayes asked. “Whoever that may be. I just want to clear that up so whoever the interim is can apply for the full-time. I know we’ve brought that up in the past for an interim. So, I don’t think there’s ever been an issue that the interim cannot apply for the full-time.”
He was apparently unaware that Janet Dudney Meadows was hired as interim director in 2013 with the stipulation that she could not apply for the full-time position.
Stonecipher asked for clarification about a contract.
“We are not entering into a contract?” Stonecipher asked. “What you’re saying is you want to appoint Donnie Holman to serve in the position until the position’s posted and other people have a chance to apply, and we can open it up for interviews and then go through the process.”
“That’s correct,” Chairman Hicks said.
When they were hired as interim directors, Meadows and Webb both signed contracts, which establish the authority of the interim to make decisions as the director of schools and gives liability protection for the school system as to the interim director’s actions, though an ice storm delayed Webb’s signing of the contract.
Chairman Hicks said the deadline is the end of the current contract, “because I don’t know that it can be done by the end of the school year.”
Abston asked, “Have we ever talked with Donnie Holman to see if he even wants it?”
“Dr. Holman told me he would do whatever was asked by the schools of him,” Chairman Hicks said. “I don’t know if he wants to be a full-time director. I do not know.”
Dial asked, “But you have talked to him?”
“Yes,” Chairman Hicks answered.
The vote to hire Holman as interim director was then taken and Hudgens, Hayes, Taylor, Stonecipher, Dodson, and Chairman Hicks voted yes, and Dial, Abston, Looper, and Gilpatrick voted no.
Both motions were approved with a 6-4 vote, where in the past the School Board has required seven votes to hire or make a change in director. Chairman Hicks said that Board policy was not in compliance with current law.
“It’s against the law to have a two-thirds majority,” Chairman Hicks informed the Board.