July 28, 2010 11:00:00 AM
Arguments and testimony were heard Tuesday in the due process hearing of former Lowndes County School District employees Lynn Wright and Stacy Hester.
Wright, the former New Hope High School principal, and Hester, former New Hope varsity baseball coach, were released by the district in May for the improper purchase of a $15,000 lawnmower to cut the grass at New Hope athletic facilities.
District officials declined to go into further detail, but sources report Wright and Hester were fired for illegally using New Hope schools'' tax exempt code to avoid paying sales tax on the mower despite paying the sticker price with funds from the New Hope baseball booster club and Hester''s landscaping company.
Wright and Hester claimed no wrongdoing and requested the hearings to present their arguments. Lowndes County Superintendent of Education Mike Halford made the recommendation to the board of trustees in May to cut Wright and not renew Hester''s contract. After being dismissed from coaching varsity baseball in 2009, Hester stayed on as a bus driver and elementary physical education teacher.
The district and the former employees each subpoenaed witnesses to make their cases Tuesday at the LCSD Central Office on Highway 45 South. Wright''s hearing began at 9 a.m. and finished at 10:50 a.m. Wright attended with his attorney, Gregg Mayer of Jackson. Hester did not appear at his hearing, sending attorney Jim McCafferty of Jackson to speak on his behalf. Hester''s hearing began shortly after 11 a.m. and wrapped up around 12:30 p.m.
"I feel good about the evidence we presented," said Halford following Hester''s hearing. "The evidence is there in pencil and paper. Black and white. That''s the reason I think we were able to do two hearings as quickly as we did."
Halford said in his seven years as district superintendent, the district has never overturned a termination.
Former County Supervisor Mike Smith, who was subpoenaed to appear during Hester''s hearing but was not called, described the whole affair as a "witch hunt."
"What they''ve been terminated for has been going on in school districts for a long time," said Smith, who is friends with both Wright and Hester and a former member of the New Hope baseball booster club. "The booster club helps the school and the school helps the booster club. If coaches or athletics needed something, the booster club got it if the school couldn''t afford it."
The testimony presented at both hearings will be transcribed by a court reporter and summarized by hearing officer Perry Sansing, a Columbus attorney and assistant to the Mississippi University for Women president. Sansing''s 10- to 15-page finding and the full transcript will be presented to members of the county school board by Aug. 24. The board will then vote to uphold or overturn the terminations at a future meeting.
Jeff Smith, LCSD attorney, said Wright and Hester will have the opportunity to present 10- to 15-minute closing arguments before the board votes.
Smith noted the hearings went smoothly Tuesday.
"It was very cooperative. There were no tempers. No raised voices. I was surprised," he said.
Wright appeared relaxed and jovial following his hearing. He declined comment except to thank his wife and friends for their support.
In the meantime, school will carry on as usual at New Hope High with former Assistant Principal Matt Smith serving as interim principal. Smith will serve in the interim for one year and will have the option near the end of the year to become a candidate for the permanent position or return to his assistant role. An interim assistant principal, Sammy Sullivan, has also been hired.
Hester, who was removed as head baseball coach at New Hope High after 18 years, was working toward fulfilling his retirement qualification with the district.
benito commented at 7/29/2010 3:11:00 PM:
It seems as if the booster club may have purchased a lawn mower for Hester's lawn service.This lawn mower should be for school use only shouldn't it?
aliceville lefthander commented at 7/29/2010 5:39:00 PM:
What I don't understand, if I read the original story correctly, is if the lawnmower was purchased in 2007, why was all of this controversy just surfacing in 2010?? Also, if the Lowndes County uses common purchasing practices as most schools, what happened to the purchase order that had to be signed by the principal and approved by the superintendent?? Something just doesn't add up and as one of the persons in the article stated, "this is just a witchhunt"!! Mr. Superintendent, just remember, "What goes around, comes around"!!
srobert commented at 7/29/2010 5:46:00 PM:
It is not a "lawnmower" to simply cut grass. It is a reel-mower used for athletic fields to add design to the lay of the grass, which would be used for a baseball field. The landscape company had no use for the mower that was purchased. And ditto to aliceville lefthander.
aliceville lefthander commented at 7/30/2010 11:23:00 AM:
srobert, thanks for the added info. After having coached for 20 years myself, I'm very familiar with the type mower you're talking about. Spent many a day mowing football and baseball fields!! Something really "smells" about this whole deal!!
1. Starkville moms embark on project that looks through the lens of autism STARKVILLE & OKTIBBEHA COUNTY
2. CPD investigates northside shooting COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
3. Former CIA operative urges citizen engagement COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
4. One killed, one severely injured in house fire COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
5. After nearly disappearing, local meth arrests make comeback COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY