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Battle lines drawn between superintendent, Gainesville school board

Ballowe says officials held illegally closed meetings, may have violated his civil rights

POSTED: June 14, 2008 5:00 a.m.

The often-controversial tenure of Gainesville schools Superintendent Steven Ballowe appears in doubt after battle lines were drawn this week between Ballowe and members of the City Board of Education.

The latest salvo came Tuesday when The Times obtained a memo in which Ballowe accused board members of possibly violating his civil rights and holding illegal closed meetings to discuss his future.

The memo was dated May 19, the same day school board members learned they are facing as much as a $7 million deficit in the current budget year, which ends June 30.

In addition to recommending some $4.5 million in budget cuts for next year, Ballowe has proposed raising the property tax rate by 20 percent, or from 6.94 mills to 8.34, to cover the $7 million shortfall.

Board member Sammy Smith declined comment Tuesday. Other board members — Willie Mitchell, David Syfan, Kelvin Simmons and Maria Calkins — either were unreachable or did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Ballowe is in Russia on a preplanned vacation until next week.

But the conflict may reach a head by the end of the month. Ballowe, who is ending the first year of a three-year deal he signed last July, is due for an evaluation by June 30.

In his memo, Ballowe accused the board of "inappropriate, unethical or illegal" actions, including closed executive sessions on Feb. 19 and April 21, which he said may have violated Georgia’s Open Meetings Act.

He suggested the board members may have violated his civil rights and he wants the board to pay for legal representation if he needs to defend himself against allegations from the board.

"Since January 2008, the superintendent has been placed in the position of correcting individual board members when actions have been inappropriate, unethical or illegal," Ballowe said in the five-paragraph memo.

According to the memo, Ballowe said board members have not acted on his request that they seek legal counsel from school board attorney Phil Hartley and the Georgia School Boards Association to correct those actions.

Hartley did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The board discussed the memo in hushed tones among themselves at a Monday night work session, but they refused to release it or comment on it.

"We want to be sure before we put something out from a legal standpoint for the protection of us," Simmons said Monday.

On Tuesday, Smith, who, along with Calkins, joined the board in January, declined to comment on the matter.

"I have no reaction until I’m advised to have a reaction by school board counsel," he said.

He also refused, on the advice of counsel, to comment on whether the board has violated the Open Meetings Act.

Mitchell’s voice mail on his home and cell phone were full. Calkins, who didn’t attend Monday’s meeting, hasn’t been reachable by phone since Friday.

Public records show that no action was taken following the executive sessions on Feb. 19 and April 21. According to minutes, the board adjourned for executive session at 8:45 p.m. Feb. 19 on a motion made by Syfan and seconded by Simmons.

The board returned to open session and then adjourned at 9:30 p.m., according to the minutes.

On April 21, the board voted to go into executive session at 6:45 p.m. for a personnel matter on a motion made by Simmons and seconded by Mitchell. The board returned to open session at 7, then took a break before going into other business at 7:15 p.m, said Lynn Jones, Ballowe’s secretary.

The board talked briefly Monday night about Ballowe’s annual evaluation, which is due by the end of the month. His current contract runs from July 1 to June 30, 2010.

"We may have to (discuss the issue further) in a ... called meeting because we have to do this by the end of the month," Mitchell said.

Simmons said that four hours of an eight-hour board retreat on June 28 have been set aside for the issue.

Last July, Ballowe received a three-year contract paying him a base salary of $185,000 in 2007-08.

The contract also calls for him to receive $7,200 a year for travel, plus reimbursement for travel expenses and mileage; family health insurance premiums valued at $7,280; $10,000 contributed to a tax-sheltered annuity; and, starting with the previous contract, $12,872 paid to the teacher retirement system.

The key clause in the contract is the guarantee that Ballowe will receive his salary and full benefits for the remainder of the three-year agreement, unless the board fires him for cause.

The contract also contains a clause that would require Ballowe to pay back a portion of his retirement earnings if he leaves before his contract expires.

Upset residents filled two public hearings last week.

Ballowe, who attended the hearing, acknowledged he was feeling the heat.

In praising the district’s financial chief, Janet Allison, for her work in the system since she arrived in August, he said, "Whether I’m here or not, she’ll be part of a great solution for the future."



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