To put it very mildly, it has been quite a year for the Williamson County School Board and for the administrators, teachers, and parents connected to our schools. Tonight, the board meets to swear in newly-appointed District 4 member Anne McGraw, elect a new Chair and Vice Chair, and move ahead with their second year as a board.
We sincerely hope that the next year is better than the first and that the board stays focused on the needs and opportunities of the boys and girls of WCS and those whose jobs it is to serve our kids every day.
We put this summary together in response to multiple requests for a digest of the events of the past year. It necessarily leaves out a great deal. As usual, we recommend you look to multiple sources for your news. We have included links to relevant press articles and other sources of additional information.
You can find video links to all work sessions, school board meetings and WCS-related county commission meetings here. You can find notes about each school board meeting here and detailed minutes here.
The Year in Review Part 2 (September 2014 to September 2015)
9/6 – Major funder Kent Davis emails Burgos, Curlee, Emerson, Cash, Galbreath, Bartholomew, Gregory and others about opportunities for privatization experiments in WCS. Others included on the email include County Commissioners Danner, Sturgeon, Kaestner, and Lawrence as well as Sen. Jack Johnson and Reps. Durham and Casada. (For more on Kent Davis, see Part 1.)
9/15 – Board members are sworn in. The new board majority—which includes 6 new members plus Mark Gregory and PJ Mezera (both 912 members and recipients of Kent Davis emails), who were already on the board—elects Gregory as Chair and Mezera as Vice Chair. (Gregory meets with Kent Davis the week before the board meeting.)
9/17 – Susan Curlee proposes the board form an ad hoc ethics committee to investigate parent organizations, PTOs and booster clubs. Specifically mentioned: the Hillsboro PTO and band boosters. The Franklin High School Band Boosters had sent out an email urging people to vote in the election.
9/23 – Brentwood parent Heather Carroll starts a petition to call for Gregory’s resignation as chair because of his business in creating the “ButtleOpener.” The petition receives more than 1000 signatures. A petition to retain Mark Gregory is later introduced and garners 97 signatures.
9/29 – A group of Hillsboro educators meet in a park after work to talk about the new school board. The meeting was organized and promoted by teachers. The educators are secretly recorded by Summer Martin, who is a new WCS teacher.
Note: An edited version of the recording of this after-work conversation later ends up being used as THE reason to start a several months-long investigation into Hillsboro faculty after it is uploaded to YouTube by Bobby Curlee on 4/2/15 and is aired on WWTN that day as well.
9/29, 9:48:56 PM – Later that same night, Susan Curlee files a public records request on several parents including Jennifer Smith, Susan Drury, Sarah Barnard, and Kim Henke as well as Williamson Strong. Ms. Curlee demands that her request be “private and confidential.” Because she is a board member, Curlee has access to protected information (including private student and parent information normally protected by FERPA) and is allowed to receive unredacted emails. Parents are not given full access to what Curlee received.
10/2 – At the request of Dr. Looney, WCS is given “permission to develop independent rigorous local standards meeting or exceeding Tennessee curriculum expectations and aligned to state assessments.”
10/6-20 – Board members propose and discuss adding a prayer before school board meetings (instead of the current moment of silence). Beth Burgos later discusses at the 10/30 Fairview High School Let’s Talk School that she had consulted with the Alliance Defending Freedom. Legal concerns ultimately override the interest of board members Burgos and Emerson who lead the charge on this issue.
10/10-16 – Susan Curlee tells Dr. Looney she wants board members to accompany him on visits to the schools, questions his loyalty, and tells him to cancel a requested meeting with Brentwood parents. Curlee also requests PR and Legal staff that work solely for the board (and not WCS as a whole).
10/20 – The board unanimously passes a nonbinding resolution asking the state for autonomy. This resolution is largely seen as the anti-Common Core resolution, though it does not contain specific reference to Common Core.
10/20 – Mark Gregory resigns as chair due to ButtleOpener controversy. (PJ Mezera had resigned as vice-chair on 9/29). Mezera is then elected chair. The board then elects newly-elected Beth Burgos Vice Chair, despite board policy that says that officers must have been in office for one full year. At a subsequent meeting, the board votes not to change the length-of-service qualification for Vice Chair.
10/20 – The board opts not to join TSBA (Tennessee School Board Association). Paul Bartholomew states that it “smacks of the UN.”
10/28 – WCS holds Let’s Talk School (LTS) event at Centennial. These events had previously been an opportunity for administration to discuss the state of WCS. Board members had asked for it to include an opportunity for them to directly interact with constituents. Board members Ken Peterson, Dan Cash, PJ Mezera, Jay Galbreath, Bobby Hullett, Candy Emersion, Rick Wimberly, Susan Curlee, and Mark Gregory are in attendance.
Susan Curlee had previously refused to meet with constituents and instead directed them to talk with her at this event. Local parents ask Curlee questions about her records request on parents and her locked political Twitter account @ISaidKnow, which has thousands of followers and includes discussion of educational issues but now cannot be accessed by her constituents.
Curlee is also asked about her accusations that parents have slandered her, followed her, and harassed her and her children. Several of Curlee’s supporters, who were not in attendance, later characterize the meeting as “nothing short of harassment and endangerment” with a “volatile” audience of hundreds of people. Local news reports indicate otherwise.
See Williamson Strong’s open letter about the event.
11/9 – 912 President J. Lee Douglas reminds his followers: “Locally, in Williamson County, you may recall that there are now 8 (of a total 12) nine-twelve members on the WC School Board.”
11/13 – County Commissioner Barb Sturgeon brings a loaded gun into the professional development building for a school board work session.
Amy McDonald’s summary of the whole saga: “She is indicted by a grand jury. She is banned from school property, as is standard procedure, until the case is resolved. She is granted a temporary injunction, which allows her on school property. She sues the School Board, because she doesn’t believe they have the authority to ban her from school property. The County Commission, on which she sits, has to approve funding for the School Board to defend against the lawsuit which one of their own members brought. Sturgeon has said that she is not interested in damages from the district, but only the lifting of the ban. The School Superintendent, in hopes of saving the school district money, lifts the ban. Sturgeon refuses to drop the lawsuit.”
Susan Curlee, Candy Emerson and Beth Burgos express concern that there is a conflict of interest for the board to share an attorney with the district and ultimately hire a second board attorney.
Sturgeon eventually pleads no contest to a misdemeanor charge and loses her carry permit for six months.
Sturgeon’s civil case against the school district is finally settled in July 2015 at a cost to the district of more than $30,000. The school district admits no wrongdoing. Dr. Looney reveals that Sturgeon had been warned about the gun by the Sheriff prior to the incident.
11/17 – Board passes a textbook review policy to conform to new legislation that takes effect January 1. Several new members (Curlee, Emerson, Burgos) work strenuously but unsuccessfully to get non-parents, non-teachers, and board members added to the review committees despite conflicts with the new state law.
12/3 – Susan Curlee files a formal complaint against parent group Williamson Strong with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance and with the local District Attorney. Curlee alleges Williamson Strong is an “unregistered politically active group” despite the fact that neither the group nor any of the individuals made contributions to candidates. Williamson Strong is told shortly thereafter (via friends) that State Rep. Glen Casada warned that Williamson Strong will “face trouble” at the Registry and will be fined.
12/15 – Board declines to spend $15,000 to hire a lobbyist, making WCS the only school district in the state to have no professional representation in the capitol during the legislative session. Board members Burgos, Emerson, Curlee, Cash, Bartholomew, Gregory state that there is no need for professional lobbying help because our legislative delegation can represent WCS. In recent years, our entire legislative delegation has sponsored and voted for legislation directly opposed by the WCSB. These include resolutions regarding charter schools, guns in parks, lobbying and the textbook adoption process.
1/15 – A voucher bill that could affect WCS is filed. The bill (SB122) is co-sponsored by Williamson County state Senator Jack Johnson, and the press release on the bill specifically highlights its alleged effect on Williamson County. The bill, if enacted, could send public dollars to private schools so that kids currently enrolled in excellent public schools could get public funding to attend private schools if a local school board approved. Voucher funds would come directly out of the local public school budget. The Williamson County provision is ultimately amended out and the bill dies.
1/27 – State Rep. Glen Casada proposes a bill (HB 158) extending the Little Hatch Act to school employees including superintendents despite local school board policies in place restricting staff from political activities during work time. The bill later passes 68-27 in the House and 27-6 in the Senate.
2/2 – In response to Susan Curlee’s campaign finance complaint, the Tennessee District Attorney General Conference finds that Williamson Strong did not violate the law. The case is not referred to the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance. They take it up anyway. See local news articles here and here.
J. Lee Douglas at School Board Meeting Public Comment 1/20/15
2/12 – State Representatives Glen Casada and Jeremy Durham introduce and co-sponsor a bill requiring a public referendum before extending a superintendent’s contract. Jeremy Durham said he co-sponsored the bill in response to concerns voiced by approximately five constituents about superintendents’ political involvement.
3/3 – Susan Curlee files a “miscellaneous action” with the Sherriff’s office stating she has a “fear of bodily harm” from board member Bobby Hullett.
3/11 – The Registry holds a hearing regarding the complaint against parent founders of Williamson Strong. Curlee brings additional documents alleging that Williamson Strong is connected to groups in Ohio, Oregon, and Minnesota that have the word “Strong” in their names. Because additional documents are presented at the hearing, a new hearing is set for May.
3/12 – The board votes to oppose the IEP voucher bill. (This bill later passed the legislature and was supported by the Williamson County delegation.) The board also votes to support HB 108 regarding changes to teacher evaluation and HB 598 which would require the state to fully fund the BEP.
3/14 – Susan Curlee presents at a Concerned Educators Against Forced Unionism (CEAFU) conference. CEAFU is supported by the National Right to Work Committee. Curlee states, “And luckily, I’ve had voices who have been available to me, be it talk radio, be it National Right to Work, be it Professional Educators of Tennessee.” Curlee announced that she has unraveled what the Daily Caller termed a “vast left-wing conspiracy to indoctrinate children” and says that PTOs are involved in efforts to “drive a very leftist, progressive agenda.”
Note: All Tennessee educators are completely free to join any association they wish or no association at all. Curlee later receives an award “for her efforts in exposing the damaging effects of forced unionism is public education today.”
Award from National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation – April 24, 2015
3/14-16 – The Daily Caller runs a piece titled “Local School Board Official Uncovers Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy” which highlights Susan Curlee. Curlee appears on Fox & Friends and restates her presentation, but acknowledges that she does not have “actual, direct proof that these things happened.”
3/23 – The school board approves a $290.0 million general purpose budget and an $11.4 million Capital Outlay Request 10-1 with Curlee opposed.
3/23 – The board votes to adopt and purchase math textbooks by a vote of 10-1. More than 900 math teachers and parents spent numerous hours reviewing books and providing recommendations to the school board.
3/23 – Leading up to the March board meeting, approximately 40 citizens of District 12 ask the school board to censure Curlee for violating the board ethics policy. Bobby Hullett introduces a resolution at the board meeting and asks it to be considered at the following meeting.
3/23 – A resolution to oppose Guns in Parks legislation passes 7-4 with Paul Bartholomew, Candy Emerson, Mark Gregory and Susan Curlee voting against.
3/30 – Susan Curlee discusses a secretly-recorded audio of teachers with the Williamson Herald. Curlee says the audio will be available on 4/2.
4/2 – Bobby Curlee (Susan Curlee’s husband) uploads a file to YouTube. The audio is an edited version of Hillsboro teacher Summer Martin’s secret recording of Hillsboro educators meeting after work. The educators are discussing the school board. The upload includes audio plus slides with accusatory language against Williamson Strong. Curlee calls it “The Agenda Revealed: Williamson Strong.” Reports state that the audio is edited to delete all references that demonstrate that the meeting was held off school grounds.
That same day, local radio talk show host Ralph Bristol plays an audio recording of what he called a “mandatory teachers’ meeting” (false) held by Williamson Strong (false) and says that several WS founders were there (false). He says the audio was supplied by Julie West. WWTN continues to air the audio as well as commentary from Susan Curlee and Julie West over several days.
4/2 – Based on the edited audio clips heard on the radio, and the story told about the meeting (no one will disclose by whom), board members Gregory, Curlee, and Mezera successfully request an investigation of the Hillsboro meeting. Some board members also successfully demand that Dr. Looney be completely removed from what would normally be an HR investigation.
4/3 – Dr. Looney requests a meeting with Susan Curlee and Chairman Mezera “pursuant to Board Policy 5.500 [Anti-Harassment policy], the Board Code of Ethics and my employment contract” and files a hostile work environment complaint when Curlee refuses to meet with him.
4/5 – Summer Martin writes a letter to the board requesting to be paid for the remainder of the year as she says she cannot return to Hillsboro as it will be a hostile work environment after her secretly made recording has aired. Board members Burgos, Cash, Curlee, Bartholomew, and Emerson successfully campaign for Martin to be paid out for the remaining six weeks of school. She never returns to work after the day it airs.
4/9 – The investigation begins, and the firm of Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Napolitan, PLLC is asked to do the investigation to determine if WCS policy was broken.
4/10 – Susan Curlee asks Chairman Mezera for “additional protection from law enforcement” because Dr. Looney’s actions toward her at a 4/6 special called meeting were “physically threatening and well documented.”
4/11 – Vice Chair Beth Burgos writes to Mezera that Williamson Strong parents are “under investigation.”
4/15 – At least one Hillsboro teacher and one administrator are interrogated for hours. Among many other things, they are told to identify each speaker at the secretly recorded after-work meeting. They are told to identify themselves on the audio and answer why they said what they said.
4/16 – Bobby Hullett withdraws his censure resolution at the April work session. Instead of discussing the actions that precipitated the censure resolution, several on the board attacked Hullett for the way he brought the resolution forward.
4/23 – ACLU threatens to sue to school district for infringing on the first amendment free speech rights of teachers and administrators at Hillsboro School.
4/27 – District issues a statement that teachers have never been under investigation, a new notion.
5/13 – Williamson Strong is fined $5000 by the Registry of Election Finance, despite the fact that Williamson Strong made no contributions to candidates in the election. The Registry admits it cannot find such contributions, and cannot find even non-contribution spending that reaches the $250 floor. The Registry refuses to let the WS attorney defend us in the hearing.
For more articles and legal documents, click here.
6/15 – The board approves a 5% pay increase for all WCS employees, which includes a 2.5 percent increase for new employees. The board voted 11-0-1 with Susan Curlee abstaining.
6/15 – Paul Bartholomew announces that he will resign from the school board effective July 20.
6/25 – Susan Curlee announces on talk radio that she is prepared to make a motion at the board’s July 20 meeting to fire Superintendent Mike Looney.
7/1 – Williamson Strong files an appeal and a federal lawsuit claiming that the Registry of Election Finance has worked to chill citizens’ free speech rights.
7/2 – Looney applies for MNPS superintendent job
7/6 – Looney is named a Nashville finalist.
7/14 – The independent investigator hired by WCS exonerates all those investigated in the Hillsboro investigation. The report states that no administrator compelled subordinates to attend a political meeting on or off school grounds or otherwise violated WCS policy or state law, there was no improper use of government resources, and there never was any claim of grievance, hostile work environment, or retaliatory conduct. Dr. Looney did not engage in any political activity in violation of WCS policy or state law. Dr. Looney did not engage in “conduct that could be considered disloyal to the Board.”
7/20 – 250 people attend the July school board meeting. Jay Galbreath proposes financial incentives to Looney’s contract – a maximum 5 percent annual salary raise, a $30,000 retention bonus, additional vacation days and a mandated buyout if he leaves for Metro Nashville.
Vice Chair Beth Burgos says the school district should not have to enter a “bidding war” with Metro Nashville since Looney has said money was not his motivation for applying. Burgos also says Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson did not like the idea of granting Looney an annual pay raise without connecting the raise to performance.
Burgos ultimately withdraws her motion to limit severance pay and a non-compete clause to restrict Dr. Looney from working in a school district within a 200-mile radius.
The board votes to extend Dr. Looney’s contract with a vote of 10-2 with Curlee and Emerson opposed. The board also approves a $30k retention bonus for Looney 9-3 with and Burgos, Curlee and Emerson against.
7/20 – Board members who demanded, shaped, and wrote the questions for the investigation say nothing about the exoneration or their actions during the Hillsboro investigation. Chairman Mezera refuses to state the results of the investigation. Instead, Dr. Looney (who was himself investigated) announces that all were exonerated, and apologizes for the pain and fear the investigation caused.
7/20 – District 12 resident Courtenay Rogers presents almost 2000 signatures requesting Susan Curlee to resign. Curlee says she will not resign.
7/23 – County Mayor Roger Anderson supports a raise for Dr. Looney.
7/24 – Dr. Looney decides to stay with WCS.
8/13 – The school board spent a lot of work session time discussing a textbook for a special Independence High School advanced elective course “Art and the American Identity.” Per Tim Gaddis, “The proposed text was reviewed by WCS advanced art teachers, a university art professor, and some citizen reviewers, using the district rubric for textbook evaluation. The reviews were consistently positive from all participating individuals.”
8/17 – The board votes to raise Dr. Looney’s salary to $250K per Mayor Anderson’s recommendation. The vote is 8-3 with Burgos, Curlee and Emerson voting against. Burgos says that she voted against the salary increase for two reasons, the first being the “process” that the increase came about, which she called “back door politics instead of due process and transparency when the board would have had a chance to vet the contract and discuss changes and openly negotiate.”
8/17 – The board approves the textbook for the special Independence High School advanced elective course “Art and the American Identity.” The vote is 7-4 with Burgos, Cash, Curlee and Emerson voting against.
8/17 – The board votes 10-1 to join TSBA (Tennessee School Boards Association) with Mark Gregory voting against.
9/4-5 – Seven people applied to be nominated for the District 4 interim school board seat vacated by Paul Bartholomew in July. Legally any County Commissioner can nominate, but traditionally the vetting and nomination is done by the County Commissioners of the affected district. Commissioners Kathy Danner and Gregg Lawrence nominate Laurie Cardoza-Moore.
9/11 – After hundreds of emails opposing the nomination, Cardoza-Moore withdraws her name from consideration and states that she will run for the seat in 2016.
9/11-14 – Commissioner Lawrence and Danner nominate Chris Koczaja for the District 4 school board seat.
9/13 – Dr. Looney is awarded Tennessee Superintendent of the Year and will be considered for the National Superintendent of the Year, sponsored by the American Association of School Administrators, and will represent Tennessee at the AASA National Conference on Education in February 2016.
9/14 – In addition to Koczaja’s nomination, County Commissioner David Pair nominates Anne McGraw, and Commissioner Matt Milligan nominates Jane McGrath for the District 4 school board seat. After two rounds of voting, Anne McGraw receives a simple majority and is appointed to the interim District 4 school board seat.