The seven comprise the Pettus school board. The agenda contained one salient item—“discussion and possible action regarding the employment and duties of the superintendent” following an executive session with the board’s attorney, Tony Resendez, of Walsh, Anderson, Gallegos, Green and Trevino, a law firm based in Austin specializing in representing school districts.
If a ‘standing room only’ crowd was not sufficient evidence that it would be a contentious meeting, the opening prayer, led by board president Joe Constante, was.
“...Transform this present moment into an hour of vision and inspiration... shed your light on us, so that we may see which decision to make... help us... to avoid vanity and pride and, thus, be able to make worthy decisions...”
The board is split 4 to 3, with the majority wanting to fire Superintendent Brian Thompson for reasons that have, thus far, only been discussed in executive session and therefore unavailable to the public.
Its decision has so upset the school that three coaches and the school’s athletic director have resigned; other instructors are threatening to follow suit.
The staff members are not the only ones upset, evidenced by the 29 Pettus residents in the room eager to voice their disapproval.
Constante would not have it.
As he moved to put the board into executive session, board member Rudy Moreno, one of the three board members in the minority, interrupted by making a motion to allow public comment so that the members in the crowd could speak.
“It is not on the agenda,” he declared, “and that’s board policy. If you would read your policy manual once in a while, you would know our policies. Before you come into a meeting like this and make a motion, make sure you read them.”
“I have the policy right in front of us,” replied board Vice President Caryel Kruger, another member of the minority.
“Caryel,” Constante said, “you make your rules as you go...”
“No, I don’t, sir,” she countered, showing a copy of the policy. “I printed this from the Internet.”
Under Pettus ISD policy, Kruger said, “‘any trustee may request that a subject be included on the agenda for a meeting (not just a regular meeting, but any meeting)...and the board president shall not have the authority to remove from the agenda a subject requested by a trustee without that trustee’s specific authorization,’ and does not include your bullying us with your attorney.”
Constante noted that the policy requires public comment at regular meetings, but not specifically at special called meetings, “because we don’t want to have public comment at every called meeting that we have.”
With that, six minutes after convening the meeting, the board went into executive session, which required the 29 observers to file out into the hall.
“They don’t want anyone to talk,” muttered one as he left the room.
That didn’t bother computer instructor Laura Warnix, who voiced her opinion of the board’s action while only a thin wall separated her from the board members. “I don’t care if they hear me. What are they going to do, fire me? I’ll just go home early.” She is retiring at the end of the school year.
Thompson was advised not to speak by his attorney, Tony Conners, of the Austin law firm Brim, Arnett, Robinett and Conners—a firm hired by the Association of Texas Professional Educators to represent superintendents. Conners represented Dr. Brett Belmarez, who resigned as superintendent of the Skidmore-Tynan school district last December.
Despite the gag rule, Thompson still managed to look confident, engaging in conversations and milling in the crowd, enjoying his popularity, seemingly with everyone except for a few board members. He was named superintendent in the spring of last year, replacing Tucker Rackley, who was retiring. Previously, he was the district’s secondary school principal. His appointment as superintendent followed a 4-3 vote.
While the board deliberated behind closed doors—anonymous sources described it at heated, almost violent—Pettus school students were taping “We Support Thompson” signs on the car windows of those who drove to the meeting.
Bee County Sheriff’s Sgt. Derek Franco showed up 19 minutes after the board went into closed session.
Pettus students, upset at the board’s determination to fire their superintendent, have circulated two petitions, one voicing their outrage over the resignation of Athletic Director Dan Garza and the other supporting Thompson. As of Tuesday evening, 216 people have signed the petitions.
In the town of 558, that represents 38 percent. True, a petition signed by teachers, students, residents and members of the administration is not statically defendable; the number of people who signed it, nevertheless, is not insignificant, particularly when the district’s enrollment is 430.
“What saddens me,” said one school employee who asked not to be identified, “is that all this is going to give the district a black eye when it has done so much. For the first time in 10 years, it gave raises to teachers and non-contract employees. And the board balanced the budget and paid off a lot of debt.”
Also, during the closed session, Mike Smith was passing out circulars calling for Pettus taxpayers to attend a community meeting at 7 o’clock Thursday night at the town’s community center.
He has posted signs about the meeting on Facebook and at the two places in town where they are guaranteed to attract public attention, the Dairy Queen and Fast Break, the town’s convenience store.
Smith and a colleague, Danny Foley—both have children attending Pettus schools—are upset with the board’s attempt to fire Thompson and that, thus far, it has given no reason for it.
“Not many people in the community even know what the board is trying to do,” he said. “I’m a taxpayer here, and I don’t like the business aspect of all this.”
If Thompson is forced out, depending on what agreement Conners and Resendez hammer out, the district could have to pay off, or buy out, Thompson’s contract as well as pay the salary of a new superintendent. Additionally, the board has to hire new coaches and an athletic director. “We are a small district,” Smith says. “We don’t have that large a tax base.”
Perhaps cognizant of the planned public meeting, or perhaps on the advice of counsel that better public relations might result from allowing the public to speak, when the board returned to open session it took no action, but announced another special meeting at 6:30 p.m. Friday, including public comment. Expecting a crowd, the meeting will be in the cafeteria.
Although Smith and Foley hoped for a turnout of 40 to 60 people at the Thursday protest meeting, only 21 showed up.
Many seemed equally confused about why the board has failed to explain its reasons for wanting to fire Thompson and why what happens in an executive session of a board meeting cannot be disclosed. “We’re taxpayers and we need to know what’s going on,” many said.
Sid Arismendez, former attorney for the city of Taft, explained that Thompson’s right of privacy overpowers the public’s right to know.
He said he has repeatedly warned the board it was in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act, but, because he was not representing the board, his warnings were dismissed.
One of the more serious charges, voiced by former board member Clifton Bagwell, is that time for public comment had been placed on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting. “The agenda was posted and then the public comment was removed, and that’s a clear violation of the Open Meetings Act which requires the agenda be posted 72 hours in advance. If the agenda is changed, it must be posted again 72 hours in advance. The public comment item was on the agenda Sunday, Bagwell says, but was removed for Tuesday’s meeting.
He says he has contacted the Texas Attorney General and the Texas Education Agency to report the alleged violations and to determine the procedure for a recall election.
Cutting through the rhetoric, the charges and the recriminations was the basic problem facing the Pettus community and its school board, a problem immediately evident from the empty space in the center: community involvement — or the lack of it.
Hana Kruger, the 15-year-old daughter of board member Caryel, offered her own lesson in community involvement by standing up and telling the crowd, “A lot of the kids love Mr. Thompson. They remember when he was principal. He didn’t do anything wrong. Shouldn’t the board listen to the students?”
She sat down then, and burst into tears.
Despite the passion of the comments at both meetings, close scrutiny of Friday’s agenda indicates the public comments may be a moot point.
While the purpose of the Tuesday meeting was to consider the duties of the superintendent, Friday’s agenda calls for the board to consider “possible action regarding “superintendent resignation agreement” and “possible action regarding interim superintendent”—leading to speculation that the two lawyers have reached a settlement.
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.