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|Dupree era ends, board remains embattled|
(Editor's Note: This report is an analysis.)
Twelve months and at least $235,000 later, Dr. James Dupree's tenure as superintendent of Monroe City Schools has officially ended, bringing to a close what one board member called "a turbulent period" over the last year.
Dupree agreed to resign his post last week after a divided Monroe City School Board voted to approve a $235,000 buyout, which includes a payout of an unspecified portion of Dupree's contract and all of his legal fees.
Dupree filed a lawsuit a few weeks ago in federal court to block the school board from firing him after a majority of the board determined Dupree failed to meet performance guidelines outlined in his contract.
Dupree's lawsuit and the subsequent settlement marked the latest chapter in a saga stretching to more than 15 months ago, or when the school board first declined to renew Dupree's contract, which was scheduled to expire in the fall of 2008.
The settlement agreement Dupree and the school board reached last week marked the fourth time Dupree's tenure at Monroe City Schools appeared to be nearing an end.
In the April 9, 2008, edition of The Ouachita Citizen, the newspaper reported that Dupree's last day of employment would be Sept. 30, 2008.
"It's official," the story began.
As the following days demonstrated and as the weeks unfolded, Dupree's tenacity to hold onto his job meant his termination was anything but official.
In the two weeks following The Ouachita Citizen's April 9, 2008, report, outside forces intervened on Dupree's behalf. The school board appointed a community action committee to assist in the search for a new superintendent, too.
The committee's work was scuttled when school board member Vicky Krutzer held a meeting with a few, hand-selected members of that committee. That drew the ire of school board member Rodney McFarland, who opined at the time the off-the-books visit smacked of favoritism and could be racially motivated.
McFarland, who at first voted not to renew Dupree's contract, changed his vote and twice attempted to have the school board revisit the subject of Dupree's contract.
That's when Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo got involved.
Mayo made an uncharacteristic visit to a school board meeting where he voiced his strong support for Dupree. It was only then that school board member Brenda Shelling changed her vote, giving Dupree the leverage he needed to hold on to his job. Shelling had previously voted not to renew Dupree's contract.
At a September, 2008, meeting at Carroll High School, Shelling defended her "change of heart."
"It's not easy being a Shelling," she said.
Not easy indeed, especially given what followed.
Less than a week after Dupree secured a three-year extension to his contract, the media reported that Cassandra Shelling, Brenda Shelling's daughter, was a finalist for the open principal's position at Carroll High School.
It did not take long for some members of the community to connect the dots and suggested that Brenda Shelling's "change of heart" had more to do with securing a job for her daughter and less to do with the welfare of the students in her district.
Whether Shelling changed her mind for political reasons or because she thought highly of Dupree is irrelevant.
The results of a national search for a blue-chip high school principal at Carroll were tainted and the three finalists, including Cassandra Shelling, were tossed out. A new search was called to fill the principal's position, but little has come of it.
More than a year later, Carroll High School is still without a principal.
In June of this year, the school board vetoed Dupree's first two suggestions for a new principal at the school. Dupree would not recommend the third candidate, who seemed heavily favored by the board.
All the while, the school board was discussing Dupree's contract and a contentious set of 14 performance objectives Dupree would need to meet to keep his job.
On the table were ambitious goals for lowering dropout rates, increasing the number of teachers in the classroom and raising lagging ACT scores in the city school system.
Establishing the 14 objectives took eight months. Those objectives were in place less than four months before the school board moved to evaluate Dupree's performance on the long-term goals.
After deciding Dupree had failed to meet a significant number of the four-month-old objectives, the school board moved in late June to terminate Dupree's contract. The school board charged that Dupree failed to meet objectives outlined in his contract. Under terms of Dupree's contract and in light of state law, Dupree was entitled to a hearing before the full school board to respond to charges that failed to fulfill his contract.
He would be entitled to a defense, to representation and to present evidence in his favor.
Dupree had other ideas.
Recalling a day not too long ago, Dupree invoked charges of bias.
Shelling apparently had another "change of heart," too.
It appeared working with the superintendent had proven challenging for Shelling after all, especially in light of an ethics complaint filed against her a few years ago. It did not take long for Shelling to suggest in an open school board meeting that Dupree was behind the complaint, a charge he denies.
The damage was done, though.
Dupree eventually sued in U.S. District Court to prevent the school board from hearing charges against him. Dupree's attorney said racial motives and the school board president's own obvious bias against the superintendent would prevent a fair hearing.
Shelling had no room to wiggle. She was on record expressing her disapproval of Dupree.
The only people surprised when the federal court sided with Dupree were the seven members of the Monroe City School Board.
The court decreed U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Hayes would conduct hearings into charges lodged by the school board against Dupree.
Hayes was empowered to determine at a special hearing if any material breech of Dupree's contract had occurred. She also would make recommendations to the school board concerning any possible disciplinary actions against Dupree.
That hearing, or hearings, never took place.
Wisely, school board attorney Doug Lawrence came to an agreement with Dupree's attorney less than a day before the seven members of the school board were scheduled to be deposed in the case. Instead of giving testimony under oath, the school board agreed to pay Dupree $235,000, which also covers his attorney's fees.
Not included as part of the settlement total were Lawrence's fees for representing the school board, the fees of a hearing officer who made two trips from Baton Rouge to hear the case or expenses incurred by individual school board members.
Before the vote to approve a settlement offer, Shelling said she supported the settlement because settling the lawsuit would prevent the intervention of a federal judge into school board affairs.
"For the past I guess two or three months, we have been faced with this situation to determine the future of our school district," said Shelling at the Aug. 26 school board meeting. "This week, two days ago a matter of fact, I was ready to go ahead with the hearing, until we were directed, instructed and directed and given no alternative but to do it the court's way."
Responding to criticism that fighting over the superintendent had distracted the school board from more pressing concerns such as student performance, facilities maintenance and curriculum enrichment, Shelling responded bluntly.
"I'll agree," Shelling said. "But certainly from this point forward we'll be more focused on addressing the needs of the district."
Those needs run far and wide for the embattled school board, which oversees a school on the brink of state takeover to deteriorating buildings.
Over the past year, Carroll High School has languished since Don Greene was dismissed in 2007. Charles Payne led the school as interim principal and the school board twice declined Dupree's recommendation to extend his employment there.
While Carroll teeters on the edge of a state takeover for failure to meet academic achievement guidelines, an investigation into the finances at Carroll led to the discovery of undocumented expenditures and unauthorized uses of school funds.
The chief suspect in the alleged thefts was the school's longtime bookkeeper, who has since died.
The status of that investigation is unknown, but school board member Jesse Handy requested a full report from school board attorney Lawrence.
Also during the past year, the school board made little progress in complying with a federal consent imposed on the school system to address racial disparities among courses offered at the system's three high schools.
School board members Vicky Dayton and Stephanie Smith will travel with Shelling to Washington, D.C., next week to meet with Department of Justice officials about the school board's progress in complying with the legally binding order.
The 2008-09 school year wasn't devoid of good news, though.
On Tuesday, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education announced Clara Hall Elementary test scores had improved enough to move that school off an academically unacceptable list.
In spite of those challenges and obstacles, one would be forgiven if they thought the only problem facing the school system is what the board should do with its superintendent.
Through it all, school board member Krutzer remained an outspoken Dupree critic until the end. She spoke against Dupree's settlement because she believed settling the case out of court deprived taxpayers of their rights. Instead, Krutzer said she preferred to see the board allow a hearing to progress, as both his contract and state law required.
"The public, whose tax dollars support this public school system, is entitled to no less," Krutzer said before voting against the settlement.
Speaking with The Ouachita Citizen following that meeting, Krutzer reiterated her belief that the school board acted properly to terminate Dupree.
Krutzer blamed the situation on outside interference in internal school board matters.
"The board voted twice in 2008 not to renew his contract, once with a supermajority, once with a simple majority," Krutzer said. "Not until outside powers got involved did people begin to change their minds."
"If things had progressed the way they were going last year, we would not be in this mess today," Krutzer added.