Nine months after a Memphis principal first reported grading irregularities at Trezevant High School, the school board has called out Superintendent Dorsey Hopson for leaving them out of the loop about an investigation that now includes all high schools in Shelby County Schools.
Tension and emotions were high Thursday night during the specially called meeting as members of both the board and community sought explanations for Hopson’s handling of allegations by Principal Ronnie Mackin.
Chairman Chris Caldwell said he wanted to clear the air swirling around Mackin’s charges of a cover-up of “corrupt, illegal and unethical activities” by district leadership — claims that Hopson has forcefully denied.
The two-hour discussion ended with board members chastising Hopson for poor communication on the matter even as, one by one, they voiced support to keep him at the helm of Tennessee’s largest school district.
Hopson apologized for falling short, cautioned against a “rush to judgment” about Mackin’s allegations, and promised to get to the bottom of it all.
“No matter what happens, no matter where investigation leads, we’re going to hold (people) accountable,” he pledged.
Here are four things to know from Thursday’s meeting:
There are two ongoing investigations stemming from Mackin’s allegations, and the board is considering whether to order its own.
After completing an internal review, the district hired a North Carolina auditing firm to review four years worth of student transcripts from all high schools, including Trezevant. Beginning this month, that company will scan every transcript in the district’s database to flag schools with high instances of grade changes for further investigation. The review is expected to be complete by the end of July.
The district also has hired a three-person team of lawyers to investigate non-academic allegations — including financial fraud and inappropriate sexual relationships among school employees — made by Mackin in his seven-page resignation letter. Looking into those are: Edward Stanton III, former U.S. Attorney for Western District of Tennessee; Paul Lancaster Adams; and J. Scott Newton, a lawyer at Baker Donelson and former FBI agent.
Caldwell raised that the board has the option to conduct its own investigation, but members took no action to pursue that track.
Revelations that arose from Mackin’s resignation last week have created tension between Hopson and the board.
Less than two weeks after voting unanimously to extend Hopson’s contract by another two years, board members criticized him for not informing members sooner about the breadth of the investigation.
“… We all have a serious role to play, and ours is of oversight. We have to maintain that,” Caldwell said.
Stephanie Love said the lack of transparency had put her in a difficult position with her constituents in Frayser.
“Had I known that there was an investigation going on … I would have had had the opportunity to reassure my community that the district was doing what it was supposed to do,” she said.
The exchanges were in stark contrast to typical board meetings where members generally approve Hopson’s recommendations with minimal discussion.
But the grading issues won’t affect Hopson’s contract extension.
After hearing worries from several principals and teachers that Hopson’s contract extension might be rescinded, the board clarified that such an action wasn’t on the table Thursday night, even as an item related to Hopson’s contract was on the agenda.
“(The discussion) was never not to extend the superintendent’s contract; it was merely for us to be able to have our legal counsel to review the contract,” Caldwell said.
Teresa Jones, another board member, said Hopson’s lax communication about the grading issues and investigation point to a lack of clarity around the board’s expectations of the superintendent, whose initial contract was negotiated with a completely different board.
“From statements today, there are some challenges with the superintendent and this board,” she said. “That does not mean that there’s a desire that he not remain the leader. But it’s an opportunity for us to look at the core of how we want to go forward as a board.”
The allegations have unearthed community concerns that grading irregularities go far beyond Trezevant.
Several stakeholders questioned how deep and far back this goes, despite assurances from Hopson that the issues are isolated.
“This is a systemic issue,” said Michael Pleasants, a teacher at Hamilton High School. “There’s been pressuring of teachers and fiddling with one thing or another.”
Hopson said the vast majority of employees “do what is right every day,” but that the actions of a small number are the issue.
“When there are these broad sweeping allegations, there’s just a cloud of doubt that hangs over everybody’s head,” he said.
The nine-member board is scheduled to meet on June 20 for its regular work session.
Four members — Kevin Woods, Shante Avant, Billy Orgel and Scott McCormick — were absent from Thursday’s special meeting.
Do you have evidence of grading irregularities in your school? Contact Chalkbeat at [email protected]