BOE could revisit Miller contract

Published 6:15 pm Thursday, December 20, 2018

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Support for Dr. Joseph Miller, director of schools, was apparent during the December meeting of the Claiborne school board. Five individuals took their turns at the microphone to request that the board revisit the director’s contract, which was deemed last month a moot point when the board voted not to review nor renew the document.

The decision, which had turned controversial, became even more so when none on the board would say ‘on the record’ why the contract would not be renewed.

A couple of members did offer to talk anonymously. Apparently, the director’s lackluster annual assessment of 52 resulted from a ‘lack’ on the director’s part to create paper trails on ‘problem’ employees. One board member said Miller had a habit of moving problematic staff “up, not out.”

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Travis Pressnell addressed these allegations during the school board meeting, last week. Pressnell said he was “mad” when he learned that the contract would not be renewed. He said he had been told by a board member that Miller had allowed an employee to resign when the board felt this person should have been fired.

“It’s my understanding that Dr. Miller sought legal advice by the board attorney, and acted accordingly in handling this situation – avoiding another lawsuit. When the employee quit, an investigation was ongoing,” said Pressnell.

He made reference to the Tennessee Comptroller’s findings, issued the day of the board meeting concerning former Claiborne High School principal T. J. Sewell.

In his report, the comptroller found enough evidence to warrant forwarding his findings to the appropriate agencies.

The Office of Attorney General of the 8th Judicial District issued a statement the same day, saying the Claiborne Grand Jury declined to issue an indictment against Sewell.

“In my opinion, the employee buried himself. He certainly didn’t need the help of Miller, or this board. Imagine firing him – you would have bought his house for him, more than likely,” said Pressnell.

Prior to employment, Miller was asked during the interview process what steps he would take to prevent any litigation being brought against the school district.

“It is my understanding that his response was, ‘seeking advice from an attorney,’ which, in this situation, he did. So, now that he’s followed advice procedure, he’s being criticized by the same board who wanted to avoid future lawsuits. I call it hypocrisy at its best, or worst,” said Pressnell.

He touched on hiring practices at the Central Office. Pressnell said he had researched this and came away with just one hire, which was an interviewed one, not an appointment.

Only one of the two vacated positions at the Central Office was filled. Both vacancies were due to retirement, he said.

“Now that, my friends, I call efficiency,” said Pressnell.

He said he had asked his school board representative whether he had contacted any of the district teachers to learn how they felt about Miller.

“His answer was ‘no.’ I’ve talked to several teachers, several administrators. Now, I can’t find one that’s not in favor of keeping Miller. It’s obvious we don’t agree with everything he says. But, you know what? You’re going to work through that,” said Pressnell.

He challenged every board member to talk with school personnel about Miller’s job performance.

“Things are going to happen, if you kick him out. You’re going to make yourselves (the school board) the laughing stock of Claiborne county, and you’re going to make Claiborne county the laughing stock of Tennessee,” said Pressnell.

Russ Smith said he moved to the county two years ago because he was not satisfied with the level of education his two sons were receiving in their home town.

“Before coming here, I was told one of my sons would never function above a second grade age level in math. His first summer (at H.Y. Livesay), I said ‘so, what do you think of your first year in Claiborne?’ And, I figured he was going to say any number of different things. And, he says, ‘I am thankful I can now do math.’

“In two years, that boy went up five grade levels. Last year, alone, he went up 43 percent in his standardized math scores,” said Smith.

He said he had run through a database the standardized scores released in August for the previous year.

“I was able to look at the trends of all the schools. We had nine schools that improved. Of those nine, seven increased over ten percent. That’s not just incremental progress. That’s significant numbers,” said Smith.

He tickked off some of the schools that show phenomenal gains. Tazewell-New Tazewell Primary, previously at 15 percentile, now sits at 56 percent, he said.

Soldiers Memorial Middle School went from 18 percent to 44 percent in the state rankings. Claiborne High School went up 25 percent.

“The reason that’s so amazing, that’s the largest school in the state. It’s not easy to move the numbers in high schools. That’s a huge challenge. That’s 800 kids,” said Smith.

The largest jump occurred with Clairfield Middle School, going from 8 percent to over 50 percent in just the one year.

He then pointed to the financial side of education. Out of a total 137 school districts across the state, Claiborne sits at 120th in funding. In other words, 119 districts receive more funding than does our county, he said.

“To have this kind of phenomenal success, without that amount of money – it’s a miracle. And, for this to happen within the first year…,” said Smith.

Claiborne commissioner Brent Clark pointed to the jump in test scores.

“I believe Dr. Miller has done a fabulous job with this school system, in the short amount of time – going from a level one to a level five. You don’t do that by not having the leadership that we have.

“Listen to Dr. Miller speak here, today. You don’t hear him say, ‘look what I’ve done.’ He’s saying, ‘look what the teachers have done. Look what the staff has done.’ As a parent, Dr. Miller was not my choice. He wasn’t from here. I thought we had some good people right here, in our county. Until I got to know him,” said Clark.

Claiborne native Angela Orr said that she was “thrilled” that someone from outside the county had been hired as the new director of schools. Orr said the position had always been played out in the political arena before Miller came onboard.

Ashlyn Roney, a former Cumberland Gap High student, said her first meeting with Miller had occurred when the newly hired director visited her school to conduct a survey.

Roney said Miller had “really listened to us” and that, in so doing, had shown he really cared about the students.

The discussion netted no immediate decision by the board. It is likely the topic will be revisited.

The Claiborne Progress continues to follow this story.