Recent meetings of the Greene County Board of Education have seen moments of sharply clashing views and obvious tension, but none has been more marked by open conflict than last Thursday's, when several teachers and administrators took sides in a packed meeting room and made jeers and other audible comments against board members Kathy Austin and Deborah Johnson.
This was largely the case as the board considered the future of retirement loyalty bonuses, which the board voted to reduce over a period of the next several years.
By a 5-0 majority the seven-member board voted for the decision to reduce, but maintain, the bonuses.
Board members Austin and Johnson voted only "present" after questioning the financial feasibility of maintaining the bonus program at all because of the expense involved.
At approximately noon on Friday, March 1, the day after the meeting, The Greeneville Sun became aware of an e-mail that had apparently been sent out on Wednesday by Board Chairman Roger Jones.
The content of the e-mail indicated that it was an effort to rally county educators to attend the meeting to show support for the retirement loyalty bonus program.
Later on Friday, the Sun interviewed Jones concerning the e-mail. He acknowledged sending it, said that he had sent it to county principals, explained why he had sent it, and firmly defended his action.
The Sun also provided a copy of the e-mail to the two school board members who were the targets of audible harassment by some educators at the meeting on Thursday and gave the two board members an opportunity to comment on it.
Both Austin and Johnson were strongly critical of Jones, his action in sending e-mail, and the content of the message.
CHAIRMAN JONES'S E-MAIL
The following is the text of the e-mail, which is being published essentially verbatim, using boldface print where the e-mail itself used boldface type:
"We need your support tomorrow at 5:00 pm. I am, as well as several of my fellow Board Members, are standing up for the educators of the Greene County School System.
"If you read the Letters to Editor in the Greeneville Sun tonight you can see that it is not that they don't understand. It's that they don't give a darn about or respect the teachers in this County.
"You are the key to the future of our community -- the most important tool in our classrooms. If you (we) as professional educators don't stand and demand the respect you deserve, then how do we expect others to do so.
"I can assure you that the negative group will be there in force trying to micro-manage and find fault with our school system.
"The Loyalty Bonus will be decided on at the Board Meeting Thursday at 5:00 pm.
"The more seasoned educators should be able to remember the battles that were fought to get what you have today. Please share those battles with the younger educators among you who were not here or those among us who have lost their memories.
"We are not wasting money by saying THANK YOU to those who remained loyal to the students (FUTURE) of our community when they could have worked elsewhere for more financial gain.
"All of you will one day receive this same Thank You.
"[Director of Schools] Dr. [Vicki] Kirk and the majority of the School Board are working hard to support your efforts and planning on ways to improve our system in the future.
"Our Students, our Educators and our Community, that we call home, deserve to have the same opportunities and respect as other counties across this State & Nation receive.
"Please help pass the word that a couple of hours given in support tomorrow will have a huge impact on our future.
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
The Wednesday, Feb. 27, issue of The Greeneville Sun included two Letters to the Editor.
One, from PK Lowrey, mentioned the county school system retirement bonuses briefly, stating:
"There seems to be much confusion regarding recent meetings of the Greene County School Board.
"According to various articles and letters in The Greeneville Sun on Feb. 7, Feb. 12 and Feb. 20, the retirement bonus policy is one of the confusing issues. All parties refer to it as a promise. Yet, it is apparently not contractual. The school board should clearly define the nature of 'promise' at their Feb. 28 meeting."
The letter went on to discuss the issue of school board committees for a few paragraphs, then concluded, "I look forward to a productive School Board meeting on this Thursday, the 28th."
The other letter, from Roger Ward, focused entirely on the retirement bonus issue and commended Austin and Johnson for the financial concerns about the program which they had expressed in earlier school board meetings.
Ward's letter referred specifically to responses by Austin and Johnson published along with a Feb. 20 Letter to the Editor from county teacher Debbye Whitehead Kerns.
In her letter, Kerns expressed disagreement with the positions of Austin and Johnson on the retirement bonuses, as reported in the Sun.
Kerns stated that she herself was not eligible for the bonus but explained why she supported it and thought it was deserved, appropriate and should be continued.
"The fact is," Kerns wrote, "that this is a bonus promised and a promise believed by teachers who are now facing retirement. They have been loyal to the Greene County School System."
Jones confirmed in the interview with the Sun on Friday that he sent the e-mail on Wednesday to the system's principals. He strongly defended his action, and explained his motivation.
"My reasoning was that what we were dealing with was affecting every educator now and in the future," Jones said.
"I thought the teachers deserved to know what we were doing and to be there -- not to say anything, not to do anything, but to be there so they could be aware what was happening. Because it did affect them.
"It wasn't anything to cause a march; it wasn't anything to incite any bad feelings. It was just to make all of them aware of what we were dealing with."
"I didn't point any fingers. I wasn't talking about board members when I was talking about it," he continued.
"I used some of the people that seem to be against anything we do for our employees. I knew they would be there and I thought everybody deserved the same opportunity to be there.
"I am a representative of not only our constituents but also of our employees. The employees are constituents also, that just happen to work for the school system.
"It doesn't change my passion and commitment to this community as a whole. The teachers and the staff and the schools are a part of that commitment and passion that I have."
Jones, a longtime teacher, coach, and principal in the Greene County Schools prior to his retirement in 2008 with some 26 years of service, was a member of the Greene County Education Association (GCEA) in the early 1980s, when the loyalty bonus was first created by the county school system.
He said in an interview on Wednesday, March 6, that he was a part of the GCEA negotiating team for a part of that time, but did not recall further specifics as to the exact time frame when the retirement loyalty bonus benefit was worked out.
Longtime board member Austin, who has clashed with Jones several times in the last two years -- including Feb. 28 -- over financial issues facing the school system, provided the following response to Jones' e-mail:
"Thank you for allowing me to respond to Mr. Jones' email that he sent to Greene County educators the day before last Thursday's Board meeting.
"This e-mail brings light to the inflammatory and confrontational atmosphere of last Thursday's meeting, promoted by the chairman.
"For those who took time to read the email, I feel it speaks for itself, to the character and motive of its author. It is a shining example of the root of the divisiveness that was on display at Thursday's meeting.
"If the community is asking why the Board appears to be out of control, why it seems to be festering from within, here is your answer.
"In a move that is completely unprofessional and purely manipulative, he reached out behind closed doors to inflame an already-tenuous conversation. Rather than working together to find a solution and facilitating healthy discussion, he chose to attempt to bully and intimidate board members to try to pass his own agenda.
"His letter makes it obvious that he didn't want to hear responsible discussion. He wanted to put on a show and further draw the line between 'us' and 'them.' The reality is that there should be no 'us' or 'them.'
"We are all citizens of Greene County, many of us are parents and former students of the system, and we all want to see our students grow and thrive within our schools.
"The non-teachers in the community are not 'out to get' the teachers and the goal is not to withhold resources from them. There couldn't be anything further from the truth.
"I have been on the board for years, and in those years I have seen how the communities within our county stand behind their schools and, yes, their teachers.
"This bonus discussion has never been because we (the Board and the community) don't care about our teachers or that we don't respect them. We care about them, but simply must make sure we don't spend more than we have, always being conscious of how any expenditure affects instructional quality for our students, and the economy of the community.
"There was absolutely no discussion about how the bonuses were going to be paid for in the future without affecting instructional quality in the classroom today.
"Frankly I'm embarrassed that the Chairman of the Board would act in this manner.
"His conduct in this matter was divisive, unethical and unprofessional, as was obvious at the board meeting. His behavior set the tone of the meeting long before the meeting started.
"His actions verify his real agenda.
"Lastly, as a board member, I was embarrassed for the students and parents who came to the Board meeting to celebrate accomplishments. It is unfortunate that the tone of the meeting detracted from those special accomplishments.
"How can students and parents take us seriously as leaders in their community when they see how our meetings are conducted? How can they respect their teachers when they see them jeering and disrupting a formal board meeting?
"I do not want to imply that I'm talking about all teachers; most are enthusiastically educating and caring for our children. We are all professionals here, and we owe it to our community to act like it.
"I would like to point out that the schools belong to the community.
"Our 'stockholders' are our taxpayers, and they have a right to know how their investment is working for them. We need their understanding and support."
New board member Deborah Johnson, who has also disagreed with Jones over financial issues in recent meetings, provided the following response to the chairman's e-mail:
"I applaud the person(s) that stepped forward and had the bravery to provide the letter to The Greeneville Sun. I further thank the editor for recognizing the importance of providing this information to the citizens of Greene County.
"This letter is an example of an attempt to intimidate some board members and thereby manipulate the outcome of certain board actions. It shows the character and ethics of the author and fosters an air of divisiveness that permeates throughout the board, administration and school system.
"Mr. Jones frequently states that his only purpose is for the education and well-being of the children of Greene County. I think this letter shows where his loyalties and priorities truly reside.
"Words and repeated apologies ring hollow, while attitude and actions speak the truth.
"Sadly, this self-serving, me first, bullying attitude is being taught to our children by example.
"The children and citizens of Greene County deserve better representation."
JONES: 'I FELT COMPELLED'
In a follow-up interview on Wednesday, March 6, Jones again defended having sent the e-mail, saying that it was intended purely to inform educators that the item was on the board's agenda.
"I can't help if somebody's conscience bothers them. It wasn't intended -- no direct link at [Austin or Johnson]," he said.
"It was that teachers deserve to know that we were discussing something that was very, very important to them.
"I'd had many, many phone calls and many, many e-mails over time, asking me what we were doing, how it was going, what was the progress of it.
"So I felt compelled.
"There wasn't anything unprofessional about it. To me, the professional thing to do was to keep people informed because they had requested for me to.
"My rationale wasn't to point fingers to [Austin and Johnson.] If they felt that fingers were pointed to them, that's their problem, not mine.
"If their conscience bothers them and [they're] feeling [it's] personally to them, I can't help how they take that. I just know what my intent was."