Tallahassee Democrat | By Ana Goñi-Lessan | April 4, 2022
There were tears even before the special school board meeting began to address the fate of a beloved principal’s otherwise flawless work record.
Leon County Schools board members early Monday morning rejected Chiles High School principal Joe Burgess’ objections to a suspension that was upheld by Judge G.W. Chisenhall of the Department of Administrative Hearings.
The two-week suspension for Burgess would stand.
School board member Alva Striplin recused herself from the vote as soon as chair Darryl Jones called the meeting to order. She said her relationship with Burgess wouldn’t allow her to vote unbiased.
“He was there for me during what was the lowest point in my life,” she said, crying.
She then walked off the dais and hugged Burgess, who was sitting in the audience, before leaving the building.
Burgess is accused of violating district policy for paying teachers for extra work without documentation.
Burgess, however, said he was not violating a clear policy, that the school board didn’t prove they trained him on a clear policy and that he was unaware of violating a school board procedure that says it’s the principal’s responsibility to review records for accuracy and approve them.
A reluctant vote followed by a promise to appeal
Before deliberation, board member Dee Dee Rasmussen said the case had 1,132 pages of transcript and 1,762 pages of exhibits.
She held up a thick binder, full of colorful tabs and highlights.
“I’m going to have a lot to say about this beyond the limitations from this proceeding today,” she said.
School board members were instructed that they needed to have substantive jurisdiction to alter DOAH’s recommendations. Members argued many of Burgess’ objections were outside the scope of the district’s power.
Jones read the appeal to the board, Superintendent Rocky Hanna and a small audience of district employees and supporters of Burgess.
Jones, Rasmussen, Georgia “Joy” Bowen and Rosanne Wood were left to cast their votes. They reluctantly moved to reject each of Burgess’ objections.
Burgess filed six objections to the recommended order, including that the district did not prove he violated a policy, that there was no training on time sheet procedures and the court erred by refusing to let Burgess introduce evidence of bias and motive.
The recommended order upheld by the DOAH judge agreed with Leon County Schools’ decision to briefly suspend Burgess for two weeks for “misconduct in office and/or willful neglect of duty.”
Because some of the approved time was paid without documentation, the judge agreed with the district and said Burgess approved payroll information that he knew was inaccurate.
Chisenhall, the DOAH judge, said the case “is an example of how the ends do not always justify the means … Burgess had a system enabling him to dole out unauthorized supplements without any oversight.”
Stephen Webster, Burgess’ lawyer, said that while the district alleged Burgess didn’t keep accurate time cards, the district did not have a procedure that said the way Burgess was keeping records was wrong.
“Now this policy that’s not in policy, and this procedure that doesn’t apply, and this practice that every principal has done – including Rocky Hanna – is now worthy of a two-week suspension?” Webster asked in a phone call with the Tallahassee Democrat.
Hanna has denied he violated district payroll policy when he was a principal at Leon High School.
Webster said Burgess plans to appeal again.
Board members: ‘We have culpability here’
Board member Rasmussen criticized the district’s lack of policy regarding training for documentation of time worked.
“It is abundantly clear to me, as it has been for a while, we cannot wait for the staff and the superintendent to bring these policies forth,” she said. “If we want to see policies, we’re going to have to bring them ourselves.”
Wood said this decision was difficult for her and everyone else on the school board, including the superintendent.
“I would like to see some new board policies that really put these things in writing, in cement, so that there’s no ambiguity,” Wood said. “People want to play by the rules, but they need to know what the rules are.”
Bowen, who said she has known Burgess since he was 17, said “difficult” was an understatement.
“I wanted to run away from this. I didn’t,” she said. “This is not easy. None of this work is, but we’re going to get the job done.”
Rasmussen apologized to Burgess, who sat in the last row of chairs, holding the hand of his wife.
“We have culpability here, too,” Rasmussen said. “I hope you take some solace in that, and I hope we can move on and you can keep on doing great things.”
Leon County Schools sent the following statement via email Monday afternoon:
“The Leon County School Board voted unanimously (with one abstention from Board Member Striplin) to reject the exceptions filed by Mr. Joe Burgess’s attorney and approve the recommended DOAH Final Order.”
The written final order reflecting the Board’s actions today will be added to the consent agenda of the April 12 meeting.