If Bibb County school board members are trying to buy out Superintendent Sharon Patterson’s contract behind the scenes, they aren’t saying.
“It is a personnel matter and with that being the case, it limits what we can say publicly,” said Albert Abrams, the board’s vice president.
Any such negotiations between the board and Patterson would be viewed as potential litigation or a settlement-type proceeding, which would preclude school board members from responding to questions, a school system attorney said.
“Although I will not confirm or deny that there are any negotiations to part ways between Ms. Patterson and the school district, any discussions by the board regarding this topic are protected by the attorney-client privilege,” attorney Sherry Culves said.
Patterson, who has led Bibb County schools for 10 years after a stint as interim superintendent, is part of a state ethics investigation of whether she and other administrators failed to report cases of principal misconduct in a timely manner.
Patterson has also drawn criticism recently from community leaders, who have noted the school system’s failure to make substantial academic progress over the years, as well as recent reports from The Telegraph about questionable hiring practices of principals by the school system.
At least two Bibb school board members, Lynn Farmer and Susan Sipe, have said publicly that it’s time for Patterson to go.
“I feel so frustrated with the current state of affairs with our school system, and I do feel Ms. Patterson should step down or be removed with an appropriate severance package,” Sipe said Tuesday. “I have been receiving phone calls and e-mails from teachers and administrators who are fearful for their jobs if they speak out about the climate of fear and distrust that exists between the superintendent and her administrators and the teachers and principals who are in the trenches.”
Sipe said any board discussions held in closed session aren’t supposed to be disclosed to the public.
“My understanding is if we were negotiating a settlement, it can’t be discussed until we come out and (vote) on the settlement,” Sipe said.
But she said speaking as an elected board member and not on behalf of the entire board, she thinks Patterson’s investigation and her leadership practices are a distraction from the ongoing work that needs to be taking place in the school system.
“In a few short months, we will be starting the budget process for next school year,” Sipe said. “We cannot continue to do our work for the students in Bibb County in this current climate.”
Farmer said earlier that the school system is no longer benefiting from Patterson’s leadership. Board members Gary Bechtel, Tommy Barnes and Ella Carter did not return phone calls for comment.
The school board has three different options it could take regarding Patterson’s contract, which was renewed in July 2009 and expires June 30, 2011.
Patterson could remain in her position until her contract expires. Or, Patterson and the board could mutually agree to terminate her contract early. That would require the board to pay part or all of her salary, which runs about $200,000 a year, not including benefits. Patterson has 17 months left in her contract.
“That (route) does require negotiation, but the (settlement) amount is not stipulated,” Abrams said. “Everything is negotiable.”
The school board could also vote to fire Patterson for cause. That would require a majority of the school board to vote to remove Patterson for incompetency, willful neglect of duty, misconduct or other sufficient cause, and it would not require the board to pay any settlement, Abrams said.
“If the superintendent is terminated for cause, they have due process rights, which means they can appeal and have a hearing, which could be a lengthy process,” he said.
When two other school board members, Susan Middleton and Tom Hudson, were asked whether they think it’s time for a new superintendent, they would say only that the public needs to let the process run its course.
“There is a blood-in-the-water thing happening ... a go-for-the-jugular,” Middleton said Tuesday.
Whatever decision the school board needs to make, she said, “It needs to be not made in the heat of the moment or in anger. You just have to be wise about it and make good decisions,” she said.
Middleton said if the board were to make a change in the superintendency, the community would need to support any potential future leader selected — and public education.
“Whatever the next chapter is, this community had better be ready to embrace that person,” she said.
For too long, Bibb County has been divided, Hudson said, but now more than ever the community needs to stand united for children in Bibb County.
“That’s the reason Macon has not grown. We are always bashing one another,” he said. “The board is fully engaged. It’s a process and we will get through this. Life is full of trials and tribulations. Together we will survive, and this shall pass.”
To contact writer Julie Hubbard, call 744-4331.