BOE director tackles the hard questions

The Claiborne School Board recently decided not to review nor extend the contract of Dr. Joseph Miller, director of schools. Questions from parents, teachers and students have netted little public information as to why the decision was made.

Offers by some board members, via social media, to talk one-on-one may have cleared the air a bit. The general public, however, has been largely left in the dark due to the reticence on the part of some board members to speak ‘on the record.’ Calls from the Claiborne Progress to others on the board have gone unreturned.

The newspaper sat down with Miller, by invitation, on Nov. 14 to address the issue. The no-holds-barred interview netted answers to a few hard questions.

Miller, who has had a phenomenal first year at the helm of the school district, said he was ‘disappointed’ to earn a 52 on his board evaluation.

“I’m not mad or upset with the board, but I am disappointed. All my efforts have been student-focused. The students have been at the forefront of the decisions I’ve made. As a result, I’ve been able to accomplish great things, to God be the glory.

“I won’t apologize for anything. During the remainder of the time I have here, I will continue to work as wholeheartedly for the students, as I can,” said Miller.

As director of schools, Miller is responsible for approximately 1,000 employees and 4,200 students. He says he runs the district like any good businessman would run a corporation. He does not micro-manage. However, he does keep alerted to potential problems that might arise during the course of any school day.

One of the school board members may have shown some light on the reason for Miller’s dismal evaluation score. The board member said in a previous interview that Miller handled ‘problem’ employees by moving them ‘up’ instead of ‘out.’

Miller said he was not aware that problematic employees had been promoted.

He explained the process with tenured teaching positions.

“A teacher with tenure has a legal claim to a job. They do not have a legal claim to a building. For example, suppose you are certified in high school science. Having tenure does not say that, if you want to teach at Cumberland Gap and we have you at Claiborne High, you get your choice in school,” said Miller.

That, he says, does not mean right decisions have always been made. However, he says he has always attempted ‘honorable’ decisions that are most effective and efficient for the district.

“We have an interview committee but, ultimately, the buck stops here. If I hadn’t have felt comfortable with moving those folks up – which is my call. State statutes say that. – then I wouldn’t have done so.

“Now, some folks may or may not be happy with those choices. But, at the end of the day, it boils down to what’s the best thing to do, for the students,” said Miller.

The board member cited one instance in which an alleged pedophile was hired, unbeknownst by the school system.

Miller says this person was hired prior to his taking over the directorship.

“We didn’t have anything valid that came through on a background check. We had a situation we did have to look into, but it came back false. I assume the TBI did their job,” said Miller, adding nothing credible came of the investigation.

That person is still employed with the school system, he said.

The board member also cited a lack of a ‘paper trail’ when ‘problem’ employees leave the district for another one. The member said repeated pleas to change the status quo landed on deaf ears.

Miller had no clear answer to this comment, other than to point to the potential for legal problems.

He did address another rumor circulating within the county. Apparently, safety director Bob Oakes would have been on the chopping block if Miller had agreed to fire him.

Miller said that it was true that “one, for sure, and possibly a second one” of the school board members came to him, asking to let Oakes go.

“If I would have had a problem with Mr. Oakes’ performance, I would have sat down and discussed performance-related issues with him. By the way, not every board member has addressed this, with me. Once again, state statute says the director is responsible for personnel in a school district,” said Miller.

He said he was a bit confused by the statement made by school board member Justin Cosby, who said he was not satisfied with the direction in which Miller was taking the district.

“I’ll repeat what I said when I went through the interview process (for the directorship position). If you want someone to take the school district to Level 5, I’m your man. If you want to stay at a Level 1 or 2, I’m not your man,” said Miller.

There is no denying the advancements made, in one short year, by the school district. Scholastically speaking, test scores have rocketed skyward. The Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) scores, alone, show a one year jump from Level 1 to Level 5 – the highest score that can be achieved within district level composites.

Since coming aboard, Miller has seemed to light a fire under educators to perform “one percent better each day.” The director has spent a good percentage of his time finding ways to enhance the learning experience. He says the school board is kept abreast of the numerous projects being pursued by him via weekly or bi-monthly written reviews.

Miller is open to talking with the public. You may contact him at the BOE Central Office.

As it now stands, Miller is scheduled to leave his directorship on June 30.

The Claiborne Progress continues to follow this story.