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Gainesville school board fires Steven Ballowe

Board will name interim leader within two weeks

POSTED: July 8, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Gainesville school board member Willie Mitchell, center, talks about his disappointment with the decision to terminate Steven Ballowe's contract as fellow board members Sammy Smith, left, and Kelvin Simmons listen. The school board voted 3-2 to end the contract, effective today.

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Citing fiscal irresponsibility as the primary factor, the Gainesville city school board voted 3-2 Thursday to fire Superintendent Steven Ballowe.

The move was effective immediately, and the board plans to appoint an interim superintendent within the next two weeks.

After the board deliberated Ballowe’s job performance evaluation and employment status in executive session for more than an hour, member David Syfan moved to terminate Ballowe’s contract. Member Sammy Smith seconded the motion.

In addition to Syfan and Smith, board member Maria Calkins voted to terminate Ballowe’s contract. School board members Willie Mitchell and Kelvin Simmons voted against the motion.

The board asked school board attorney Phil Hartley to take the next 60 days to determine what compensation, if any, Ballowe is owed under the terms of his contract.

Under the terms of his contract, Ballowe is owed his full salary and benefits

for the remaining two years of his contract if he is fired without cause.

After the vote, Ballowe said he believed "100 percent" that he was fired without cause or justification.

"Now that’s the sad part," Ballowe said. "It’s going to cost Gainesville a lot more in legal fees and salaries."

Ballowe was present for the beginning of the meeting, but left before the executive session ended. He was not present for the board’s vote on his firing.

In recent weeks, the school board and school system administrators have been working on a budget for the 2009 fiscal year, including making cuts in the proposed $61.6 million budget to address an estimated $6.5 million deficit facing the system. That budget was due to the state Department of Education June 30, but is expected to be complete by the end of July.

To help pay off the multimillion-dollar deficit, the board is considering raising property taxes 14.4 percent this year.

While local business leaders have publicly voiced concern about the proposed tax increase and many residents have rallied against Ballowe, holding him responsible for the deficit, some members of the minority community have supported the superintendent.

Leaders of the Southside community credit Ballowe for the test score gains their children have achieved under his leadership.

Rose Johnson-Mackey, co-pastor of Truth and Deliverance Outreach Ministries, told the board Thursday that in addition to the superintendent, she holds them accountable for the deficit.

"You are equally responsible," she told the board. "Because if he did not do his job, then you did not do your job."

Board members heard comments from about five Ballowe supporters and one Ballowe critic during the public portion of Thursday’s meeting. The board then voted to go into executive session to discuss personnel matters.

Once board members entered the closed portion of the meeting, many waited anxiously in the hallway of the school system’s office, anticipating a vote on the superintendent’s contract.

When the crowd filed back into the board room, board members’ faces held grave expressions.

"None of this was an easy issue for any of us," Syfan said to the roughly 20 people present at the meeting before the board voted on the contract. "Because of this, it took some discussion to come to a consensus as to how we proceed."

The board voted to fire Ballowe to the politely vocal dismay of the minority-filled audience.

Some noted the board’s 3-2 vote mirrored the racial divide over the issue in the community.

Calkins spoke carefully.

"I feel my duty and my fiduciary duty is to Gainesville city schools," she said. "It’s been such a difficult decision because I’ve seen such a divide in the community, and that makes me sad ... We’re going to move forward and we will get through this."

Simmons said he was not pleased with the way in which the community responded to the school board’s recent financial problems and the resulting public outcry calling for Ballowe’s termination.

"I think this community has been disrespectful to Dr. Ballowe," Simmons said, defining the low point of disrespect as the days in which a billboard on the Gainesville city schools’ mascot, the Red Elephant, called for the superintendent’s dismissal. A local business rents out the elephant, usually for special announcements.

"It’s a sad day in Gainesville for our children," Simmons said.

Mitchell had only one comment to make after the superintendent’s termination.

"Today is probably the first time in my life that I know how my mom felt when she heard the Gainesville City Board of Education was going to close Butler High," he said, referring to the time when Gainesville schools were integrated, and minority students were bused to Gainesville High School.

But Syfan said Ballowe’s termination is the beginning of bringing financial order to the school system, and could allow the board a clean start with the community. He said the board needs the support of the community to enact a new Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax that could fund new schools in the Gainesville city school system.

"It’s our perception that the financial situation has affected the school system’s relationship with the community," he said.

Smith said he voted to fire Ballowe because the move reflected the wishes of the city’s taxpayers.

"I think the board has work to do in the eyes of the community," he said.

Syfan, who was named the new chairman of the board Thursday, said despite the grim meeting, Gainesville schools have a bright future. He said the majority of credit for Gainesville schools’ achievements must be given not to the superintendent, but to the principals and teachers who are in classrooms helping every child every day.

"The stability of the system is in place ... We are trying to do what we believe is in the best interest of our school system and each child," he said. "I know for a fact everyone on the board is concerned about kids. I’m hopeful that the healing process will begin, and hopefully, that started (Thursday)."

Hartley said it could take up to two months to work out the details of Ballowe’s contract in accordance with the Fair Dismissal Act of Georgia. Ballowe had two years remaining in the three-year contract he signed with the school board on July 16, 2007. Under the terms of the contract, Ballowe is entitled to his full salary and benefits, including health insurance and retirement, for any time remaining in the deal if he is fired without cause.

In July 2007, Ballowe was making $170,331 a year. But the latest contract agreement provided Ballowe a base salary of $185,000 before benefits worth an additional $37,000.

According to the Fair Dismissal Act, a state law that applies to all public school educators, educators can be fired for acts including incompetency, insubordination, willful neglect of duties, immorality and "any other good and sufficient cause."

If it is determined the board had legal cause for firing the superintendent, it could owe Ballowe nothing. But if Ballowe’s legal representative argues the board fired him without cause, the board could be required to pay him approximately $444,000, the salary and fringe benefits for which he would be paid during the remaining two years of the contract.

Ballowe said most of the current board members were not on the board when he was hired in 2001.

"That always was a concern for them and for me," Ballowe said. "I’ve really worked hard to do the right thing for the children. Someone else may work with the numbers, but I focus on the children, and they are succeeding."

Ballowe said he feels the board shifted the blame to him rather than shouldering responsibility for its role in the school system’s financial problems.

Contemplating the events of the past month from the couch in his office Thursday afternoon, Ballowe compared the job of superintendent to being the quarterback of a football team.

"We get too much praise and too much blame," he said. "It’s where the buck stops without a doubt, but if I’m a board treasurer, you shouldn’t be pointing fingers. But I accept all my responsibility as superintendent."

The board also elected new leaders for the remainder of the year before going into executive session.

Initially, Mitchell moved to elect Simmons as chairman, but the motion died for lack of a second. A 4-1 vote, with Mitchell dissenting, elected Syfan as chairman and Simmons as vice chairman.



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