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School board upholds demotion after hearing that lasts 21-1/2 hrs.

The Jenkins Independent Schools Board of Education upheld Superintendent Debbie Watts’s demotion of former Jenkins Middle- High School Principal Teresa Bentley in a 4-0 vote after a mammoth 21-1/2 hour hearing that lasted for two days through two sessions. Board Chair Durward Narramore Jr., Vice Chair Tracy Goff, and members Eileen Sanders and Paul Stambaugh all sided with Superintendent Watts while board member Paulette Sexton declined to cast a vote and walked out of the room as votes were finally cast around 8:30 a.m. on Saturday.

After the vote, about a dozen of Bentley’s supporters who had stayed during the long night of testimony stayed to speak with her while others expressed their bitter resentment at the vote as they walked from the Jenkins High School library where the proceeding was held to accommodate the large crowd of spectators.

The vote came after approximately 20 hours of testimony from Watts, Bentley, and several witnesses. Bentley’s attorney, Follace Fields of Brooks, McCombs and Fields in Lexington, and Tim Crawford of Corbin, who represented Watts, conducted most of the questioning and Board Attorney Darrell Hall of Whitesburg acted in much the same capacity of judge in a civil trial, and cast no vote in the final outcome.

Bentley was entering her fourth year as principal at Jenkins when demoted in November. Her service to the school system includes 24 years as a social studies teacher and coach of the Jenkins Lady Cavs basketball team. Bentley is currently assigned as a co-teacher in sixth grade social studies at Burdine Elementary School.

Watts is in her first year as superintendent and was hired by the board in July to replace John Shook, who retired last spring. Watts served in the Knott County system as teacher, central office staff and principal before coming to Jenkins.

After explaining that the board does not usually address personnel matters, Board Attorney Hall told the large crowd that attended the first evening’s meeting that under the old law, an administrator who has been demoted has the opportunity to present his or her side of the issue to the board and ask that the decision be reversed. He then said Crawford and Watts would go first and asked that the board withhold a decision until all the evidence was presented.

Under the guidance of her attorney, Watts outlined several charges she had brought against Bentley to justify the demotion. Low academic performance in testing, financial mismanagement, inefficient use of teacher resources, and poor interpersonal skills were the reasons Watts cited at the beginning of the hearing and Crawford took her laboriously through a description of each charge that lasted through the first evening. Watts also stated that Bentley had made her feel unwelcome at staff meetings and at the middle high school during a lockdown that concerned two separate incidents.

Addressing the first charge of poor academic performance, Watts referred to the system’s current ranking of seventh from the bottom in scores on the most recent CATS testing, a theme she hammered throughout the proceeding. She also pointed to poor scores in math, science, and arts and humanities in the total academic index and said that the Jenkins system did not meet its benchmark for the federal No Child Left Behind and also failed to meet benchmark levels in the American College Test (ACT) on English and math and said scores in the ATC testing had dropped overall.

Watts also addressed use of staff, saying that all teachers were not assigned to work with students, citing Athletic Director Jerry Bentley, who is Bentley’s husband, as being assigned to only teach three classes per day. Watts said although Bentley modified the schedule several times, it did not meet with her satisfaction because Jerry Bentley was not assigned to the areas she had requested. She said Jerry Bentley averaged teaching 60 students per day while some others taught over 100.

In the area of financial management, Watts alleged that Bentley had conducted the financial operation of the middle high school out of compliance with the Accounting Procedures for School Activity Funds Handbook or “Redbook,” a term she used throughout the proceedings. Watts told the board Bentley had used student activity funds to pay for staff and faculty activities and some faculty members had gone over the limit for expenditures on trips. She charged that Bentley had authorized the addition of an awning to an outdoor lunch area that is also used for smoke breaks by faculty and staff without an architect’s approval as mandated by state law.

Watts also accused Bentley of having poor interpersonal skills, citing an e-mail Bentley sent to football coaches requiring them to attend a state-mandated training session and suggesting that their failure to attend would be considered insubordination, as well as Bentley’s questioning of her request to provide her with a list of everyone who rode a school bus on a school outing and have it in writing before the trip started. Watts included professional responsibility in this area and said that Bentley had made her feel unwelcome at staff meetings and that during a lockdown that occurred on October 29, 2008, Bentley had walked away from her while addressing two separate incidents which had necessitated the lockdown. Watts said that Bentley would not speak to her and she did not feel welcome at the school.

Watts also included a new teacher who resigned after Bentley asked about the validity of a lesson plan and an incident in which Bentley and Finance Officer Candala Gibson had an argument over time cards for classified staff in Watts’s office. Her primary objection to Bentley’s handling of staff centered around an e-mail asking teachers in the middle high school to attend a Personal Development Day with the statesupplied “assist team,” which had been assigned to the system after the poor test scores and approved by the board in its September meeting. The team was presented to the board then as a voluntary assist team by former Pike County School Superintendent Frank Welch, but Watts said during testimony that it was mandated by the state Department of Education. Watts suggested that Bentley’s e-mail asking teachers to attend the Personal Development Day even though some had already completed their personal development requirements for the school year had not been strong enough and had left them with the option of not attending, although every faculty member except one who was hospitalized did attend the meeting.

“It wasn’t like she was supporting us and telling them, ‘you have PD on Monday, be there’,” said Watts. “She told them to do what they wanted to.”

Watts also cited a Scholastic Audit conducted by the Office of Educational Accountability approximately three weeks after Bentley was demoted. At- torney Fields objected to the inclusion of the audit, saying since Bentley had been away for that period of time and that the audit had only been made available to him a short period earlier, it should not be admitted as evidence, but was overruled by Board Attorney Hall. The audit was conducted by investigators doing “walkthroughs” and observing classroom performance and found several deficiencies including questions which were raised about the awning in the outdoor lunch area.

Attorney Fields began his cross examination of Watts on Thursday evening and it extended into the Friday afternoon session as well. During the cross, he addressed each charge and revisited them during Teresa Bentley’s testimony to refute Watts’s allegations.

One point of contention Fields raised was how Watts became aware of the awning situation since her email to Bentley concerning it had come on July 15, only two weeks after she was hired as superintendent. He asked Watts if anyone on the board had spoken to her about Bentley and she replied no. Watts stated that she believed she had learned about the awning at the first board meeting, but that occurred on July 28, almost two weeks after the e-mail was sent. She then said that she was unsure who had told her about the awning, and that maybe it had been Board Chair Narramore or perhaps former board member Raymond “Benji” Prunty, who was defeated in November for re-election to the board.

Fields also asked Watts if it was not standard procedure in disciplining an administrator to follow a proscribed series of steps including a “write-up” in which a problem is addressed, letters of reprimand, and issuing a corrective action plan in which steps to correct a problem and a timetable for correction are established. Watts replied that none of these procedures had been followed in Bentley’s case. She also told Fields that she had not looked into the financial issues to determine if Bentley was simply following prior practices in the system rather than capriciously violating procedure. When he asked if the financial improprieties were a district-wide practice, Watts replied that she had noticed that the entire district was not following the proper financial procedures and that it should follow the “Redbook.”

“The purpose (of a corrective action plan) is to put them on notice to improve specific things or specific actions will be taken,” said Fields. “Has Mrs. Bentley been given one?”

Watts replied that Bentley had met with her but had not followed her directives and the assist team was in place and needed to move forward.

“So between July 15 and November 7, you determined she was unsalvageable?” asked Fields.

“We had an urgency to move those students forward,” replied Watts. “We had a lot of novice students and we had to target to meet the students’ needs.”

Fields then referenced the two interim principals from Central Office staff, Director of Pupil Personnel Harvey Tackett and Director of Federal Programs Sherry Wright as well as newly hired Interim Principal David Lester, a retired administrator from Pike County Schools. Lester was hired in February.

“So you’re on your fourth principal by the end of February and that will improve test scores?” Asked Fields.

“Absolutely,” replied Watts.

Fields then addressed the situation with Jerry Bentley, which Watts characterized as preferential treatment shown by Bentley for her husband. Watts said although Jerry Bentley served as athletic director, drove a bus, and coached girls’ basketball, he was only assigned to three academic classes and she had directed Teresa Bentley several times to make sure his time was used in a classroom instructing students. Watts said since Jerry Bentley is only certified to teach physical education at all levels and social studies in middle school, it greatly limited what courses he could be assigned to teach. However, Watts said Jerry Bentley could also be assigned as a tutor and pull students out of classes in which they were struggling to work with them one on one or in a smaller classroom setting.

Fields then pointed to four different draft schedules that Bentley had presented to Watts in order to accommodate her demands about Jerry Bentley, but Watts said none were satisfactory and they still left Jerry Bentley with an additional free period in addition to his planning period which each teacher must have according to state law. She said the revised schedules had placed him in a computer lab in which no students were assigned.

“I asked for particular at-risk students to be rotated through,” said Watts. “I wanted him to tutor. He is certified to tutor and I asked that students be assigned to him for tutoring. She resisted everything and the schedule never changed. She told me every reason in the world.”

Fields also pointed out that although test scores had gone down in some areas during Teresa Bentley’s tenure, they had gone up in others. He said arts and humanities was up by 6.25 percent and the middle school was up in all areas. Watts agreed that while the middle school had gone up, high school and elementary school had dropped and said the middle school scores did not meet No Child Left Behind standards in reading. Fields countered that math performance in middle school had risen above the sate average in 2007- 2008.

Fields also mentioned the small size of classes in Jenkins and said that sometimes 40 or 50 students are tested in a given year. He said the relatively small population in testing made it easier for a few students to skew the impact of the tests and reduce the percentages. Watts replied that is correct, but her goal is to ensure that all students learn at a high level. She said if students are well equipped for testing they should have good scores. Fields also pointed to the high scores posted on the ACT by graduating seniors and said that the inclusion of the junior class, including those students who are not planning to go to college, had diluted that test.

Referring to her allegation that Bentley has poor interpersonal skills, Watts told Fields that the incident in her office between Bentley and Finance Officer Gibson had been poorly handled and that several Central Office staff had heard the raised voices. She also referenced the email to staff concerning the Personal Development Day with the assist team. Watts said although Bentley sent an email to the faculty asking them to attend she did not believe Bentley insisted forcefully enough and had left them enough room to make their own decision as to whether to attend or not. Fields replied that Bentley had cited the statutes requiring their attendance and encouraged them to go. Watts also admitted that there were widespread complaints from teachers in the middle high school and in the elementary schools about having to attend the training when that had already completed their Personal Development requirements.

“She should have instructed them to go. There was an either/or there,” said Watts. “We have an assist team. We need to get on board.”

Fields also asked Watts if previous superintendents had followed the “Redbook” procedures for issuing purchase orders and staff advances for travel. Watts replied that principals and financial staff should be trained in “Redbook”. Fields replied that clearly the series of e-mails exchanged between Watts and Bentley indicated that it was not the way it was being done when Watts was hired and they were not familiar with the procedures. Watts replied that Bentley had challenged her oversight. She also mentioned another e-mail exchange between Bentley and Laura Revis, who directs the Family Resource Center. The emails concerned Revis’s leaving without signing out and improper use of time cards. Watts took exception with Bentley’s method of addressing Revis and said it was it was disrespectful. Fields replied that the matter had been going on for three years and that Bentley had lost patience with Revis when she failed to address it.

“You lost patience with Teresa Bentley in three months,” said Fields.

Several witnesses appeared as well. Director of Federal Programs Sherry Wright said that she had been asked by Superintendent Watts on November 24, over two weeks after her demotion, to ask Bentley if she would be available to receive a letter of notice of her demotion from Watts and Bentley had replied that she would not talk to either Wright or Watts and they should address any future questions or comments to her attorney. Along with DPP Harvey Tackett, Wright took over as interim principal until David Lester was hired in February.

Wright also said that she and Tackett had been instructed to check on portfolios with Andréa Duty, who taught English at the high school but had not been able to see them. Wright said she had been told they were not complete and Attorney Fields asked when they were due. Wright replied they would be due this year on May 4, the first day of testing.

District Financial Officer Candala Gibson also took the stand and corroborated Superintendent Watts’s account of the incident in her office. Gibson said it started when she discovered that she had underpaid summer custodial staff by 30 minutes a day because the time card had no capacity to register the half hour they got for lunch. Gibson said state law requires that staff receive a half hour for lunch but it is not counted for pay so when she saw eight hours she assumed they had worked seven and a half hours and paid them accordingly. When Bentley came to the office to check on the matter, Gibson said because Bentley had signed off on a time sheet to the effect that the employees had worked eight hours, she thought Gibson was questioning her integrity and became angry. She said that she and Bentley both raised their voices and the meeting became very strained.

“It got ugly,” said Gibson. “I had not experienced that in my professional life.”

Gibson also backed Watts’s statements that Bentley and others in the system did not follow the state’s recommended financial practices as outlined in the “Redbook”. However, she said she could not testify as to whether Bentley was following prior practices or not since former Superintendent Shook had handled all the financial matters except making budgets before his retirement in May 2008.

Karen Wilder, who resigned as school secretary upon the birth of her grandson last fall, also testified and told Fields that she had received no formal “Redbook” training in her four years at the middle high school during which time she also served as bookkeeper. She added that as far as she knew, Bentley had not received training in “Redbook” either. Wilder said whenever an issue arose in the annual audit, Superintendent Shook would discuss it with her and she would take steps to rectify it but she had no training in the state standard. Wilder also explained that the fund Watts had identified as a student activity fund was actually a fund that came strictly from the soda machines in the staff lounge and all money came from faculty and staff. She said the student funds were used for student activities. Wilder said that in her opinion, Bentley had done a very good job in financial management.

Personnel Insurance Coordinator Mary Hall testified and said she had served as financial officer in the Central Office and as secretary bookkeeper in the middle high school in previous assignments. Hall said she had been in her office when Bentley and Gibson had their discussion and that although it became heated, both Gibson and Bentley had raised their voices. Hall also agreed with Wilder that whenever any questions were raised in the annual audit, Shook would make sure they were corrected.

DPP Harvey Tackett told the board he had served as boys’ basketball coach for 18 years during his 26 years in the Jenkins system. He said during his time as coach, both the head coach and assistant coaches on the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams always received a cash advance to go to the state tournament and presented receipts to the principal upon their return. He said if there was money left over, they were expected to give it back and if they spent more than they were advanced and had receipts they were reimbursed.

Tackett also served as principal at the middle high school for several years before he began working in the Central Office. He said he had just become aware that there was a problem with a local business over purchase orders and that it was mostly with the baseball team. He also said he was part of the walkthrough team and participated in the five- to seven-minute “snapshots” of classroom activity. He said this is the first year he had participated in the middle high school since he began his duties in the Central Office.

Guidance Counselor Karen Corbett told the board she had been present during the lockdown and had not noticed that Bentley had disrespected or ignored Watts so much as that Bentley was focused on the situation. She said Bentley has asked her to keep Watts informed while she investigated the circumstances that led to the lockdown.

On testing, Corbett said the small size of individual classes could easily skew test scores but said the attitude of students also had a lot to do with them. “We live in an area that does not value education the way we want them to,” said Corbett. She said Bentley had tried several approaches to get parents involved with their children’s education and had been “big on phone calls” to let them know about academic progress and what was going on at the school.

Science teacher Susan Rowland was more direct in her assessment of student problems with testing and education in general. Rowland said although test scores and academic ability varied from class to class, she had been surprised to see the low interest level expressed by students and their parents in education.

“I’ve never seen such a low level of interest or ability in students as I’ve seen here,” said Rowland. “It’s not every class, but some classes. We’ve done Professional Development, Professional Growth, motivational techniques. We’ve done it all. The thing that brought change from one year to the next is the ability the students have. Not every child can learn at a high level and for every child to learn at a predetermined level is unrealistic. I’d be glad to have someone show me how to motivate some of my students. I have helped some but with the majority, there is such apathy and lack of support. I do not think our students are hopeless, but I pray a lot. We’ve had good leadership. Teresa Bentley is the strongest principal in my (14 year) tenure.”

Math teacher Azure Wright told the board she believes the math department is understaffed and therefore unable to offer the kind of math diversity necessary to really raise test scores. She said there isn’t enough money to bring in more math teachers. Wright also attributed at least part of the low test scores to lack of motivation on the part of students and she believes the students do not get support at home because their parents don’t value education.

“As a teacher, I always find hope,” said Wright. “The teachers and the school are doing everything possible. I don’t think it’s impossible.”

Teresa Bentley took the witness stand after 4 a.m. and testified for about two hours. She spend a good deal of her time refuting allegations made by Watts and Gibson concerning financial improprieties, but the gist of her testimony was to the effect that the financial practices by which she had conducted her school business had been in place before she became principal and had also been in place at least one superintendent before John Shook took over in 2001. She said cash advances had been common when she coached and had been in place for at least 10 years.

Bentley also told the board she had made every effort to accommodate Watts’s desire to have Jerry Bentley teach the desired number of classes but his certification had made it difficult. She said she had tried four different schedules for Watts and the last one had been dismissed out of hand. Bentley said she had one other teacher, special education/math teacher Beth Dorsey, who had a similar problem since Dorsey also pulled students out of classes to work with them but they remained assigned to other teachers, and had met with resistance from the Central Office when it came to reassigning Dorsey.

Bentley told the board that the lockdown situation had been necessitated by two separate incidents and had so totally taken her focus that she had been unaware that Watts’s feelings had been hurt when she focused her attention on the incidents. She said she had meant no disrespect or harmful intent to Watts but had been too involved with the lockdown to notice her own lack of response to Watts. Bentley said that Watts did not follow her down the hall as Watts had alleged during her testimony and she had asked Karen Corbett to keep Watts informed while she conducted a “hall sweep” to make certain the halls were safe. She said she had not ignored nor disrespected Watts.

Bentley admitted she had written a strongly worded e-mail to Laura Revis over her continued refusal to sign in and out of the building, but added it had been going on for three years with no improvement. She said at the time, Watts had told her it looked like she had a good reason for reprimanding Revis but later it was included in the reprimand of Bentley. She also admitted to becoming upset with Finance Office Gibson because she believed Gibson was questioning her integrity over the time card situation. Bentley said she did raise her voice and Gibson did as well, and Watts’s door was open so the Central Office staff likely did hear the exchange. She said she had not screamed during the exchange and if she had everyone would have known it.

In the area of test scores, Bentley admitted that they had gone down but said she was more disappointed about that than anyone. She said her primary responsibility was to supervise the faculty and staff and as far as she was concerned the teachers were doing their jobs. She said she had tried to improve the school through staffing but it was very difficult to get rid of tenured faculty members whether they were doing their job well or not.

Bentley said she had not received any training in “Redbook” until one session after Watts arrived and that the financial practices in place had allowed for cash advances to coaches. She said the awning fund had appeared in the monthly financial report she submitted to the board for its approval and had never been questioned until Watts came on as superintendent. Bentley said she had asked Superintendent John Shook about the awning before starting to develop a fund for it and he had told her it was a good idea and he would bring it before the board so she had taken it from there.

Bentley also upheld her e-mail to the high school faculty asking them to attend the Professional Growth Day, saying it had been her attempt to smooth over some of the many complaints she had received over the additional training day. She said she had not made any threat of action as to what would happen if they didn’t show up because as she had written in the-mail, they were professionals and knew their responsibilities.

When Tim Caudill cross-examined Bentley he said he got the impression that Mrs. Watts didn’t get the message that “you were doing things like you had always done them at Jenkins.” He sarcastically referenced Bentley’s comment that during the lockdown Watts had asked about school t-shirts and said he believed Bentley and Watts had communications issues.

Bentley told Caudill she believed the assist team was important and could help the school but the faculty had a lot of different people telling them a lot of different things and it created considerable confusion. She said she told them to pay attention to the team leader, Lisa Caroll and they would be all right.

“I’m unsure if the board knew what they were getting with Frank Welch,” she said. (Welch initially sold the concept of the assist team to the board). “The board hired Frank Welch.”

Bentley also told Caudill that there were some teachers in the middle high school that weren’t actually teaching, but pretending to teach whenever somebody came around to check on them. She said she had evaluated them and some had been put on corrective action plans but Superintendent Shook had told her not to take further action until more evidence was compiled. She said the school had experienced a lot of turnover, and some had been because they didn’t want to keep the teachers. When asked if she wanted her job as principal back, Bentley said she did.

“I’ve been here 24 years,” said Bentley. “I feel like I have started to improve our school. This is our home and I want to see our school succeed. I feel like I was a good principal and I want to be here.”

Attorney Fields began a brief summation just before 6:30 a.m. on Saturday with the sun starting to come in through the library windows. He said his goal had been to present Bentley’s side of the situation and she had been left to hold the bag after the downside began.

“Mrs. Bentley wanted the public to know she disagreed with the charges,” said Fields. “She has been doing what she was asked. The school has improved. It’s in the board’s power to do as you see fit. You can order her into another administrative position, put her back in as principal or uphold the superintendent’s decision. Make the decision you feel is right.”

The board left the room and went into executive session at 6:30 a.m. and returned at 8:37 a.m. Fields said he did not ask the board whether or not Bentley’s demotion had been legal but if they agreed with Superintendent Watts’s decision. Caudill offered no objection to entering Fields’s statement and Board Chair Narramore asked the board to state individually if they supported Watts’s decision. Paulette Sexton left the room and the rest stated they did support Watts and the meeting was adjourned. theft.

The indictment charges Fields, 31, of 399 Misty Branch, Seco, with acting alone or in complicity with Chad Joel Bentley in entering or remaining in the home of Billy Brown and Renee Wampler at 172 Henry Hatton Road, Neon, with the intent to commit theft on December 28, 2008. She is also charged with acting alone or in complicity with Chad Joel Bentley in taking property belong to Billy Brown and Renee Wampler.

Letcher County Deputy Jason Bates testified in the case.

• Chad Joel Bentley — complicity to burglary and complicity to theft.

The indictment charges Bentley, 28, of 399 Misty Branch, Seco, with acting alone or in complicity with Bobbie Sue Fields in entering or remaining in the home of Billy Brown and Renee Wampler at 172 Henry Hatton Road, Neon, with the intent to commit theft on December 28, 2008. He is also charged with acting alone or in complicity with Bobbie Sue Fields in taking the property of Billy Brown and Renee Wampler.

Letcher County Deputy Jason Bates testified in the case.

• Katina Lynn Bentley — receiving stolen property.

The grand jury charges Bentley, 30, of 399 Misty Branch, Seco, with receiving property stolen from the home of Billy Brown and Renee Wampler.

Letcher County Deputy Jason Bates testified in the case.

• Casey Parker Jr. — burglary and assault.

Parker, 39, of 618 Hilton Church Road, Shelby Gap, is accused of burglary at the home of Crystal Stalker in Mountain Breeze Apartments, Apartment 335, Jenkins, on December 18, 2008. He is also charged in the assault of Crystal Stalker.

Jenkins Police Sergeant Adam Swindell testified in the case.

• Douglas Monroe Church— bail jumping and being a persistent felony offender.

Church, 38, of 4197 Dorton Jenkins Hwy., Dorton, is charged with failing to appear at a discovery/ settlement conference on April 30, 2004 in Letcher Circuit Court in connection with a felony charge.

In a separate indictment, Church is charged with failing to appear at a pretrial conference in Letcher Circuit Court on May 12, 2004 in connected with a felony charge, and with being a persistent felony offender.

Letcher County Deputy Jason Bates testified in both cases.

• Lydia Faye Bentley — bail jumping and escape.

The grand jury says Bentley, 35, of 203 Main Street, Whitesburg, failed to appear at a pretrial conference on February 11, 2009 in Letcher Circuit Court. She is also charged with escaping from the custody of Letcher County Deputy Jason Boggs while being charged with a felony.

Letcher County Deputy Jason Boggs testified in the case.

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