School board approves superintendent contract despite petition, lawsuit
A split vote Dec. 13, with three members of the Hartselle City School Board of Education voting yes and two abstaining, approved Brian Clayton’s contract as the next superintendent despite the board facing litigation over the hiring process and community concern surrounding its choice for the job.
Board president James Joy, vice president Monty Vest and Randy Sparkman voted to approve the contract at the meeting held at Barkley Bridge Elementary School. Clayton’s contract will be valid from Jan. 4, 2023 through June 30, 2025 and includes a one percent raise on June 1 and a two percent raise on July 1, 2024. Clayton will also receive $600 per month for eligible expenses, a cellphone, laptop and $5,000 in relocation costs. His annual salary begins at $185,000.
Clayton, 52, replaces Dee Dee Jones, who retired as superintendent in September. Sabrina Buettner has been serving as interim superintendent since Jones’s departure. Clayton is currently the principal at James Clemens High School in Madison.
Board members Venita Jones and Daxton Maze abstained from voting at the meeting Dec. 13. Jones previously said she was not given enough time to look over the resumes of the candidates and make a decision.
Maze, who voted against Clayton’s approval at the November meeting, said he abstained because a vote in light of the lawsuit and petition would not be “the right choice.”
“As we heard at the December board meeting from a representative of an active petition, there are stakeholders who disagree with the recommended candidate, the hiring process, or a combination of both and have asked for the process of hiring to be paused,” Maze said. “As a person that is elected to represent our constituency in school matters, I didn’t feel it was the right decision to vote for or against the contract recommendation. Coupled with the filed lawsuit alleging an Open Meetings Act violation regarding the initial recommendation, I didn’t feel like a vote either affirming or against was the right choice tonight.
Maze added although he agrees with the terms of the proposed contract, a vote from (him) affirming the contract felt like (he) would be affirming the decision or process.
Vest and Joy declined to comment.
The online petition that as of press time had garnered 557 signatures, said “there should be no question where our new superintendent stands on” issues including in-person instruction versus remote learning, student mask mandates and the role and inclusion of ideological curricula in our school system.
Bruce Wilhite led the petition effort. He is a Hartselle parent with two children in the school system and the plaintiff in the case against the school board. He said he was disappointed at the board’s decision to move forward with the hire.
Wilhite spoke to the board and the crowd that packed the gymnasium at Barkley Bridge Dec. 13.
“I’m here to advocate for our children … We are not telling you who to hire, we are outlining the criteria that is important to us so that you, as our representatives, will apply them to your pool of candidates and hire a superintendent who will function within our value system,” Wilhite said.
Wilhite requested the hiring process be halted and the board re-interview the candidates to address community concerns.
Attorney Russell Crumbley filed a lawsuit on behalf of Wilhite against the Hartselle school board Dec. 9 in Morgan County Circuit Court.
The lawsuit alleges the school board violated its own board policy and the state’s Open Meetings Act in the selection process that led to Clayton’s hiring.
Circuit Judge Stephen Brown denied the lawsuit’s request for a temporary restraining order that would have blocked the school board from hiring Clayton, but scheduled a hearing on the lawsuit’s request for a preliminary injunction against the school board for 1:30 p.m. Jan. 3. Each side will be allowed one hour to present their case.
The school board conducted a series of 90-minute interviews with six superintendent candidates from Nov. 7-10. The lawsuit accuses the board of posting the meeting agenda on Nov. 15 at 1 p.m., five hours before the meeting at which it selected Clayton was held.
The lawsuit says the school system’s policy manual requires members of the public who want to present a matter to the board to submit a written request five days before the board meeting, which it said was impossible due to the timing of the posting of the agenda for the meeting.
The notice of the Nov. 15 meeting violated the state’s Open Meeting Act “because it did not include a general description of the nature and purpose of the meeting,” which is required for meetings, the lawsuit alleges.
Bayne Hughes contributed to this report.