After testimony and presentation of evidence in a fair-dismissal hearing that spanned eight hours, the Liberty County Board of Education unanimously voted Monday to uphold Superintendent Dr. Judy Scherer’s recommendation to terminate a teacher’s contract.
Altomese Brown, a veteran teacher who previously was tenured in another school district, was placed on administrative leave from the pre-K center Sept. 27, shortly following an incident in which a child reportedly was left in Brown’s classroom during a fire drill. Following Scherer’s recommendation to terminate Brown’s contract, the teacher invoked her right to a fair-dismissal hearing.
The hearings, which are open to the public, seldomly occur.
According to Scherer, most people facing midyear termination choose to resign instead of going through the fair-dismissal process because of its public nature.
“If we are terminating a contracted employee during the school year, it is for cause, and most people do not want that aired in the public,” she said after the hearing. “It also inhibits their chances of being employed with another school system.”
In Brown’s termination letter, the system charged her with incompetency, willful neglect of duties and insubordination, according to an opening statement by attorney Phil Hartley, who represented the school system.
Sid Cottingham, a Douglas education attorney, presided over the hearing, and Brown represented herself.
The system’s witnesses included three principals who previously supervised Brown, a paraprofessional who worked in her most recent classroom and Scherer. Hartley called the witnesses from this year, then from previous years.
The first witness, Pre-K Principal Shelby Bush, testified about two occasions in which a student from Brown’s class had been left behind. The first time, a child was left on the playground after recess, she said. The second time, only 11 days later, another child was left alone in the classroom while the rest of the class vacated the building for a fire drill.
After the first child was left alone on the playground, Bush testified that she did not directly speak with Brown about the incident but sent an email to the entire staff to remind them about their responsibility to keep the children accountable.
The second witness, Brown’s classroom paraprofessional, Tashmyia Aklin, also testified about the incidents at the preschool. Aklin said that when the child was left on the playground, neither she nor Brown counted the children before returning inside, when they noticed they were a child short.
Aklin also recounted the occasion when another child was left alone in the classroom during a fire drill.
On that occasion, Brown had left the room to take two children to the clinic to receive medication when the fire alarm sounded, so Acklin awoke the children from their naps and lined them up at the door. Brown returned during the process and was gathering her class roster when Acklin left with the class. Once they got to the designated spot, Acklin noticed that a child was missing, she said.
Brown shook her head as Aklin testified that she did not see Brown count the children before.
Liberty Elementary Principal Chris Anderson was the third witness to testify on behalf of the board. Brown taught fourth-grade at his school during the 2010-11 school year after being moved from Frank Long Elementary.
Because Brown was on a professional development plan aimed to address some performance issues, Anderson said he deliberately stacked Brown’s class with high achievers to maintain consistent scores on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.
Despite the fact that the class had higher scores than the fourth-grade average, Anderson said he noticed that some children had not advanced at the expected rate and that some even regressed. He also said he had concerns about the lack of rigor in Brown’s lesson plans.
Though not yet under oath, Brown refuted these claims by speaking about lessons in persuasion and persuasive writing and presented test scores that showed her class as being high-performing.
Current Bradwell Institute Principal Scott Carrier, who was principal of Frank Long during Brown’s two years teaching kindergarten there, also testified.
Carrier said that on multiple occasions, Brown left her students unattended while she ran errands around the campus. Once he addressed that problem, he and others frequently saw Brown and her entire class moving throughout campus at times that should have been spent in class.
Scherer, the last witness for the system, testified that she had planned not to renew Brown’s contract at the end of the 2010-11 school year but that she decided to give the teacher a last chance at the pre-K center.
When making her case, Brown did not call any witnesses beyond herself. She vehemently denied the allegations that her lessons were not rigorous enough and presented student work and outside educational materials that she used to motivate and engage her students.
Brown also addressed the situations where preschool students were left behind and asserted that she followed the procedures as she knew them.
“I did everything that I could to make sure that everything was followed, and we left the room,” she said about leaving the student during a fire drill. She did corroborate Aklin’s account about being out of the room and coming back after the alarm sounded. “I’m not making excuses — that was unfortunate.”
As for the student left on the playground, Brown said there were about 70 people on the playground at the time and that the student was not left alone.
“The child wasn’t left by himself — he was mixed in with other children, and that’s where the confusion was,” she said.
As she wrapped up her testimony, Brown made an emotional appeal to the board.
“Why wasn’t protocol followed, talking directly to me before indicting me as not supervising my class? …” Brown said. “Why was my side of the story not heard? How can you make an informed decision without hearing from me, the person involved? … Lastly, I would like for you to consider to have this unfairness stopped. No matter what I do, I’m judged as not being competent and not following directions, being insubordinate.”
After deliberating for about half an hour, board member Becky Carter made the motion to uphold the superintendent’s recommendation and terminate Brown’s contract, and Carol Guyett seconded.
“I’m numb, and I’m disappointed,” Brown said after the vote. “The main issue is that some serious allegations have been made against me — and they were not true.”
“When the principal, Mr. Carrier, talked about me not supervising the children, that was not true … and if that was the case, why was it not written?” she said.
“Creativity does not seem to be warranted here, and success,” Brown said. “But you know what? I’m proud of what I did with the kids, and I’m proud of my relationship with the parents — but I just have to take one step at a time, that’s all I can say.
“But no matter what, I’ll still be OK because I did what was right by the children.”