HCS Superintendent contract results in controversy, mixed vote

Voting no to renew the superintendent contract of Dr. Holly Sutherland are board members Beth McAlpine and Barry Burleson. Shown in the middle is Kris Burleson, who voted yes along with members Chad Tidwell and Donna Jones.

HALEYVILLE  - The issue of whether or not to renew the contract of Haleyville City Schools Superintendent Dr. Holly Sutherland sparked controversy, including some strong statements made by school board members during a work session held just prior to the board meeting Tuesday afternoon, July  23.
The board went ahead in the regular meeting and voted by majority to approve a three year extension on Dr. Sutherland’s contract, which would put the contract effective July 1, 2019, through June 30, 2023. 
The board took the action when Dr. Sutherland had one remaining year of her present three year contract, which took it through 2020 and added the three years of the new contract, expiring 2023.
Board President Donna Jones asked for a motion to renew Dr. Sutherland’s contract, with Kris Burleson making the motion, with Jones seconding the motion as board president.
Voting in favor were Kris Burleson, Chad Tidwell and Jones. Voting no were Barry Burleson and Beth McAlpine, but the motion carried on a 3-2 vote.
“I just appreciate the school board supporting me in a contract extension,” Dr. Sutherland said after the regular meeting.
“We’ve done some great things. We have a lot of real good things going on. We’re going to continue those things. We have done well on our (state) report card. We’ve done well on AdvancED (accreditation). Our attendance has been phenomenal.
“So we are going to continue to work hard and do what’s right for kids.
“We’re just excited as a family to stay in Haleyville a few more years,” Dr. Sutherland added. “For me, that means my oldest son will graduate from high school, which is very important to my family.”
Dr. Sutherland continued she was excited to be a part of the community she loved.
However, the contract  renewal did not go without major discussion among board members, during the previous work session.
“I’d like to talk about the contract,” McAlpine spoke out towards the end of the work session. “I don’t know how we can’t go into executive session, because Dr. Sutherland makes more than $75,000.”
“I don’t think that’s totally accurate,” responded Board Attorney Jeff Mobley. “When you are discussing the terms of the contract, that is open meeting always, regardless of how much it is. That is open.
“If you get into personal issues or good name and character, that is something which can traditionally go into executive session,” Mobley said. “But the specifics of the raise, the amount of money...that is supposed to be discussed in an open meeting.”
McAlpine said last month she did not know the contract was up for renewal until she received her board packet.
In fact, the topic of renewing Dr. Sutherland’s contract was scheduled to be on the agenda for the June board meeting, but  the topic was removed from the agenda before the board meeting.
“It was pulled, taken off the agenda,” McAlpine said. “We really haven’t had any discussion, because you can’t have a quorum. We can’t get together as a group.”
McAlpine then referred to comments made by new high school principal Davey Reed at the June work session, where he mentioned there was “an elephant in the room,” citing he understood there were questions among board members about Dr. Sutherland’s contract.
“I feel like we’ve put our board member that’s new in a terrible position,” McAlpine said, referring to Tidwell.
“Any board member has a vote whether they have been a board member a week or 10 years,” McAlpine said. “I am personally not ready to renew this contract right now.”
Jones then read the motion, which read, “to consider approving the contract extension for HCS Superintendent Dr. Holly Sutherland effective July 1, 2019, through June 30, 2023.”
“Previously, our past two superintendents had their contract renewed in July,  and I have copies of both of those here,” Jones said.
“But they were unanimous (votes) and this  is not a unanimous..I have many people in this community and this school system that have approached me over the last six to nine months,” McAlpine responded.
“Well, I have had many people on the flip side that have approached me that have been 100 percent positive,” Jones said.
McAlpine noted she was not ready to renew the contract at the regular meeting that night. “Y’all all know it’s been a mess,” she said. “Am I the only one in the room that thinks there’s an elephant in the room besides the new man (Reed)?”
“Why do want to delay the vote,” Jones asked McAlpine.
“Because there’s question about a four year contract,” responded McAlpine. She was referring to the one year remaining of Dr. Sutherland’s present contract plus a renewal for the next three years through 2023.
“We don’t have to do it tonight,” McAlpine said. She then mentioned about the meeting they had, considering Chere Fetter as the high school principal before Reed was hired.
“I was told that Dr. Sutherland said I lost it in that meeting, that I was  crazy. I am not crazy,” McAlpine pointed out.
“I don’t want to be the pot stirrer,” she continued. “I don’t want to be the person who goes after someone.”
“You have to watch that unless she (Dr. Sutherland) tells you that  and you heard her say that, you can’t listen to here-say,” Jones told McAlpine.
“You talk about bullying. We have had some employees who were bullied,” McAlpine said....It’s not here-say.”
Kris Burleson then spoke out, “I think sometimes in a leadership position, whether it’s Dr. Sutherland, whether it’s (Middle School Principal Bo) Wilcoxson, any principal or any leader, you go to people..If I go to you about something, you may think it’s bullying. I am just trying to tell you the way to do something.”
“Do you need me to give details?” McAlpine said.
Mobley recommended the board continue and address anything that did not involve any specifics, and if the board felt like they wanted or needed those specifics, they would need to enter executive session.
McAlpine then questioned that a superintendent recommends an action to the board which votes on it. “So, the superintendent recommends her contract to us,” she said. 
Mobley asked the board if they had any other questions about the contract itself.
“There were parts that were omitted from the first contract,” spoke out Barry Burleson. “Will you explain those?”
“I am not aware of anything that was omitted,” Mobley responded.
McAlpine noted there was a section in the contract she didn’t know how Dr. Sutherland or anyone would handle it.
“If the person was indeed their boss. McAlpine then read from the contract, “The board individually and collectively shall refer all substantial criticisms, complaints and suggestions called to the board’s attention,” she read.
“...We will give them to the superintendent for study and appropriate action, and the superintendent shall investigate such matters and inform the board the results of such action,” McAlpine further read.
“What if the complaint is against you,” McAlpine then asked Dr. Sutherland.
“I would think that if somebody came to one of you and said I have a complaint about Dr. Sutherland, and you would say that her contract says we need to do it this way, but in this certain case, I would think that either the board president or one of you guys would come to me and say this is a concern...Can you tell me what’s going on or Ms. Jones would do that, and she would report back to you,” Dr. Sutherland responded.
McAlpine told Dr. Sutherland there was an issue about an employee and Dr. Sutherland met with that employee. 
“And then you’re sitting there texting saying  oh, they said they didn’t say it,” McAlpine said. “Well, that is very intimidating.”
“This is what happened,” Dr. Sutherland responded. “We had a conversation  and you said this employee said, not to you, but said in public, that I  had made a statement that was not true.
“And so that employee and I, even through they are no longer here, have a good relationship, and I remember standing there and having the conversation with the employee that day, and I just went to (him) and said Did I misunderstand what was said to me, and he said No Ma’am, and we had a nice conversation about it,” Dr. Sutherland continued.
“And when I responded to you, I did say, because I wanted you to know, that I had that conversation and I went to the employee. I do not believe that that  happened,” Dr. Sutherland said.
“It did,” McAlpine interjected. “And that employee and I  had conversations since, and I hate it and it’s an absolute travesty, because they said that I personally, I was the only person who wanted them fired.”
“I can tell you that that is just not true,” Dr. Sutherland responded.
“There again, it’s just he said, she said, you said, and all this,” Jones said. 
“We have got to remember our roles and responsibilities as established by the AASB,” she added. “We cannot go in and say things to employees and whatever, just because we are on the board of education.”
McAlpine said she had been told directly about a bullying situation.
“The key to a bullying situation is this,” Mobley said. “You have to look at all sides of what went on, and then pose the question, was this bullying yes or no. If so, what do we do to remedy the situation. If not, how do we help the employees not consider it or feel like it was bullying,” Mobley stated.
“The person accused of doing it may not have intended to do that,” Mobley added.
“I am  not trying to air dirty laundry,” responded McAlpine, “but gossip in town is worse than any group of us.”
“Do we need to vote on it tonight is my question,” she said.
“I think we need to go ahead and vote on it, because school is fixing to start. I want to have a good school year” Jones responded. 
“I don’t want this hanging over our head. In my opinion, I think we need to go ahead and vote on it, so we can move forward. We can’t have this hanging over us and it lingering on, because talk around the town, as you say, will just get more and more and more as we go on.”
Contracts for a county superintendent are between two and five years. For a city superintendent, as the case with Dr. Sutherland, the standard contract is three years, Mobley further explained.
“Every employee that I’ve had to come to me, I should just send them to you?” McAlpine told Dr. Sutherland. “They won’t do it.”
“Unless it’s a principal issue, they should be going to their principal,” Dr. Sutherland said. “Unless they have a problem with their principal, I think the first step would be their direct supervisor.”
“I think everybody needs to follow a chain of command,” Jones said, “because that is the law. That is written down.”
“I agree with that, but Dr. Sutherland answers to the five of us,” McAlpine said, “as a collective board.” 
“Even if we have problems, go to the board president or whatever,” Kris Burleson.
“I was a little bit put off on how that was handled,” McAlpine said. “I went to the bathroom two months ago, and while I was gone, we decided who  was going to be the next board president and vice president.”
Kris said she understood that Beth did not want the position.
“It was just a courtesy thing,” McAlpine said.
“I guess that was on us,” Kris said.
“I don’t think that was intentional,” Dr. Sutherland said. “It wasn’t intentional by me, I know.”
Tidwell then question whether the issue was bullying or just being the boss.
“That’s where I’m at,” Tidwell said, “because the boss told them to do their job and they call it bullying.”
Barry Burleson spoke out he had a problem with Dr. Sutherland asking for a raise before the teachers receive a raise.
“I am never going to ask for a raise before my employees,” Barry said. “I am going to try to get them money first. We never ever talked about going ahead and getting teachers money in August to reward them for all the work they have done the last couple of years, since the last raise.
“I am going to fight for my employees,” Barry added. 
Dr. Sutherland responded when the state legislature approved this year a 4 percent raise for teachers, who had already received a 2 percent raise, the school  system could not compensate the teachers for their 4 percent state mandated raise any earlier than when teachers are set to receive their 4 percent at the beginning of the fiscal year Oct. 1.
“Look how that looks for the 200 people that work for you,” Barry responded.  “How does that look to 200 families...That bothers me.”
“I wish that it was to where our teachers could have gotten that raise in August,” added McAlpine.
“So do we,” Dr. Sutherland responded. “It’s a significant amount to give a four percent raise that early.”
“You’d have to locally fund it for two months,” added Chief School Financial Officer Candy Marbutt.
Contract Specifics Explained
The Alabamian obtained a copy of both the first three contract and the newly approved contract regarding Dr. Sutherland.
It was pointed out that one year remains of Dr. Sutherland’s first three year contract, which would have expired June 30, 2020.
The new contract includes the remaining year of the first three year contract plus an additional three years, taking effect retroactive to July 1, 2019, and expiring June 30, 2023.
According to Dr. Sutherland’s first three year contract, her annual salary was listed $115,000 for July 1, 2017, through June 30, 2018, and each year thereafter for the duration of the contract, according to that contract.
The new contract lists Dr. Sutherland’s contract at $125,000. A breakdown  of that $10,000 total  increase includes the four percent raise that all school employees, including the superintendent, receive at $4,600 for the total amount for the superintendent.
That would have put Dr. Sutherland’s annual salary at $119,600. Then, an additional $5,400 was added from local funds, which, according to Jones, was the only amount added to the salary coming from local funds.
The only other change in the contract from the previous one was in regards to travel expenses. Dr. Sutherland’s first contract gave her $400 a month in a auto and travel allowance. That, according to the new contract, increased to $600 per month, in sight of the increase in fuel costs. The increase was for “ordinary travel and expenses incident to her duties as superintendent,” according to the contract.
Jones Issues Statement 
on Contract Renewal
Jones, as president of the board of education, issued a statement following the contract extension, commending Dr. Sutherland on what was described as effective leadership.
“Some very significant and major accomplishments that provide evidence of her leadership in our school district are our state report card scores improved greatly,” Jones began.
“We had an impressive decrease in student and teacher absences due to incentives and plans implemented by  Dr. Sutherland,” Jones added.
“Our system began a successful STEAM initiative (one of the first in north Alabama schools) and our HCS increased in areas of academic achievement, graduation rate (increased from 87 percent to 96 percent), our college and career readiness program achieved many successful accomplishments, and our AdvancED district wide evaluation score was one of the highest in the state of Alabama,” Jones continued.
Jones also mentioned that the financial stability of HCS is well above most systems in the state.
“We have an excellent superintendent, administrative team, faculty and staff who love Haleyville City Schools, and students are willing to go the extra mile to achieve success.
“Dr. Sutherland has proven herself to be an awesome and effective leader for our school system,” Jones said. “This is indeed proof of reasons to renew her contract.”

See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.
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