The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

November 10, 2012

Board votes to fire Johnson Elementary principal

By Kim West
kwest@athensnews-courier.com

— To the dismay of an audience overflowing with supporters for Dr. Casey Lewis, the Limestone County Board of Education voted 6-1 to terminate the Johnson Elementary School principal’s contract during a contentious board meeting Thursday evening at the Clinton Street Courthouse Annex.

After hearing from several audience members, including Lewis, his wife, his attorney, teachers from Johnson and Alabama state NAACP President Bernard Simelton, board members discussed canceling the principal’s contract, which runs through July 1, 2013.

The vote

Board members James Shannon, Earl Glaze, Anthony Hilliard, Marty Adams, Bret McGill and Darin Russell all voted yes, while Charles Shoulders, whose District 1 includes Johnson Elementary, dissented and asked prior to the vote whether the board had the option to table the motion for termination of Lewis’ contract.

The board made its decision based on the purchase and financing of an electronic LED sign installed at the school in March. The sign, which cost under $20,000, was procured by Lewis, who said during the meeting that he did not realize he was required to accept written bids instead of verbal ones.

“Dr. Lewis did not have any personal gain in (the sign purchase), and I don’t think Dr. Lewis would jeopardize his career for a $19,000 sign,” Shoulders said. “I would hope that this board would entertain the same practices as we have in the past. People have made mistakes, but they were given a second chance. … Do we destroy a man’s career because he violated a board policy? Please consider that.”

Board Chairman Bret McGill reminded board members that the original motion by Glaze was to either terminate Lewis's contract or ask him to resign. Glaze was asked to re-consider the motion, which he declined, and it resulted in a vote for termination. Immediately following the decision, 50 supporters for Lewis filed out of the cramped meeting chambers and into the annex lobby as board members were told, “Shame on you,” “This is wrong” and “The board will be known for this.”

Hilliard, who represents District 6 and described Lewis as a friend, said, “I’ve been at Johnson, and I’ve seen this man in action and believe he is a good man.

“I don’t believe he is the only one at fault in this process. I think if others know something is wrong (and don’t act on it), then they are an accomplice. It doesn’t matter what has been done in the past … I do think (Lewis) knows the bid law, and if something is wrong, then it’s wrong.”

Written notice

An allegation was repeatedly made during the meeting that administrators knew about the sign purchase in March and didn’t hold Lewis accountable. The acting superintendent at the time, Zebbra Green, declined comment about the allegation after the meeting.

Green, now an executive director of human resources for the system, and Rhonda Stringham, executive director of curriculum, was assigned by Limestone County Schools Superintendent Dr. Tom Sisk, to investigate the allegations against Lewis.

Lewis, who was placed on administrative leave Oct. 10 by Sisk, will be notified by writing within 10 days of the board’s decision Thursday to cancel his contract.

Lewis will then be asked to inform Sisk whether he plans to accept the board’s decision or petition a circuit court judge to review the case. During the meeting, Sisk, citing the Teacher Accountability Act, said his initial recommendation was to demote Lewis to his former position of assistant principal, but he said that Lewis didn’t have tenure as assistant principal to allow that option.

The principal's take

When it was Lewis’s turn to speak to the board, he stressed his record at Johnson and in the community, which included finishing first in the county the past two years in state assessment scores due to the “commitment from our teachers and drive of our students.”

He also implemented the “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” program at Johnson, volunteered with Head Start and coached for a youth baseball league.

“First, I want you to know that what I do at Johnson Elementary is in the best interest of the students, and I have a stellar record until now,” said Lewis, who was wearing a dark suit and a bright blue bowtie, a style that causes his students to participate in “Dress Like Dr. Lewis” days. “I would not do anything (intentional) to harm my family and my career at Johnson Elementary … I’m in the education business because I love to teach and to help lift students upward and toward their dreams.”

Board policy

The board majority contended that Lewis had attended an education conference on June 18-19, 2009, that reviewed the changes in the Alabama bid law, and that Lewis had knowingly violated board policy when he accepted a verbal low bid from Golden Rule Sign Company of Louisville, Ky., rather than seek written bids.

The superintendent described the financing of the sign through installment payments with the company as “a loan” and a policy violation, while Lewis said, “It was not a loan.”

Lewis’s attorney, Jake Watson of Huntsville, argued that Lewis hadn’t violated any board policies. After the meeting, he said the board previously had offered to let Lewis resign and be paid through the end of his contract.

Attorney action

Watson was given an allotted time to speak during the meeting. He was asked to follow the rules of order of the meeting after attempting to address the board members during another portion of the meeting.

After McGill asked him twice if he would follow the rules, Watson was escorted out by a Limestone County Sheriff’s Department deputy as the audience protested his ejection.

According to county school officials, Shoulders and Watson, Lewis had not been charged with a crime and was not being investigated for sexual misconduct.

Supporting Lewis

Tonnesha Lewis spoke about her husband’s character as did his other supporters, who described him as “creative,” “deserving,” “caring” and “a great leader.”

More than half of Johnson’s entire teaching staff stood up during the meeting to show their support to Lewis and wore bright pink T-shirts emblazoned with Lewis’ school motto for 2012-13, “One voice, one sound.”

“I have been married to him 16 years, and I have known him for 20 years,” she said. “I know him to be a God-fearing, good and caring man and father of two active young boys. I know his heart better than anyone, and I know he loves being principal at Johnson Elementary.

“I hope and pray you make your decision fair and right — it’s what the students, teachers and Casey deserve.”

Lewis, of Dallas, Texas, was a special education teacher for five years, an assistant principal at Tanner High School for two years and principal of Reid Elementary for two years. He became Johnson’s principal in July 1, 2009.