Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

March 11, 2013

Former principal’s demotion upheld

Concerns included Claxon’s absence, timely processing of education plans

Kenneth Hart
The Independent

FRANKFORT — The Kentucky Court of Appeals has upheld the Greenup County Board of Education’s decision to demote a former middle school principal.

In a ruling handed down last month, a three-judge panel of the appeals court rejected Phillip Tracy Claxon’s appeal of a lower court ruling in his civil lawsuit against the board and Superintendent Steve Hall. Special Judge Rebecca Phillips entered an order in Greenup Circuit Court affirming the board’s action in September 2011.

Claxon appealed Phillips’ ruling. The appeals court heard oral arguments in the case in January in the western Kentucky city of Bardwell.

According to the appeals court’s 12-page ruling, Claxon was employed by the district for 22 years, including more than 10 years as an administrator. In May 2009, while Claxon was principal of Wurtland Middle School, he and then-Superintendent Randy Hughes entered into a corrective action plan regarding several areas of Claxon’s performance.

The key areas of concern were Claxon’s excessive absenteeism from work, the maintenance and timely processing of special education referrals and individual education plans and the occurrence of regular site-based council meetings, the ruling states.

The plan required Claxon to contact the superintendent directly if he was going to miss work and for him to miss no more than one day a month, according to the ruling. The document also stated “administrative changes will occur for the 2010-11 school year in the event that the aforementioned corrective actions are not successfully implemented.” Claxon and Hughes both signed off on the plan.

In December 2009, Hughes told Claxon he was being transferred to the district’s central office and promoted to the position of director of district programs, effective in January. However, in April 2010, Hughes informed Claxon of a reduction of responsibility and pay for the next school year. The following month, Claxon told the board he planned to contest the demotion and requested he be provided with the reasons why he was being demoted, the ruling states.

Hughes provided Claxon with seven reasons for his demotion, including extremely poor work attendance, failure to ensure special education documentation and timelines are maintained and failure to have regularly scheduled site-based council meetings.

Claxon’s demotion hearing was  June 14, 2010. At the hearing, Hall, then acting superintendent, testified Claxon had missed 38 1⁄2 days of work between Sept. 1, 2009, and June 17, 2010, including the period between April 26, 2010, and June 9, 2010, for which he was medically excused. However, Claxon still exceeded the one-absence-per-month limit set forth in the corrective action plan, according to the ruling.

The board also heard testimony that WMS was non-compliant in special education in at least two areas where federal rules required 100 percent compliance, the ruling states.

In his appeal Claxon argued  the board’s decision to demote him was not supported by evidence because the grounds given for his demotion were based on events that occurred while he was in his previous position at WMS; that the grounds for his demotion were not provided to him with the specificity required by state law, and that the trial court misinterpreted testimony by Claxon and others given at the demotion hearing. The appeals court rejected all three arguments.

However, while finding the board acted according to law, the judges advised the school district to exercise greater prudence regarding future personnel decisions.

“ ... we would advise against the promotion of an employee when concerns persist which are likely to result in his or her demotion,” the ruling states. “While there may be administrative or policy-based reasons for doing so, such an action only muddies the legal waters and clouds an appellate court’s review with confusion, and even suspicion.”

KENNETH HART can be reached at khart@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2654.