Former Bluffton middle school principal's termination appeal could be this month

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comOctober 10, 2013 

A public hearing for a former H.E. McCracken Middle School principal who is appealing his termination could come before the end of the month, a Beaufort County School District attorney says.

On Tuesday, the Beaufort County Board of Education asked the attorneys for both the district and former principal Phillip Shaw to schedule the hearing sometime during the week of Oct. 28, board Chairman Bill Evans said.

Attorneys for both parties began taking depositions this week, according to school district attorney Vernie Williams of Columbia-based law firm Childs & Halligan. That work should be completed in the next week, he added.

"It looks like that's a viable week (for the hearing) based on where we are in the process and completing the depositions," Williams said.

Attempts Wednesday and Thursday to reach Shaw and his attorney, Fatima Zeidan of the Law Office of Clifford Bush III in Beaufort, were unsuccessful.

Attorneys for the district and Shaw exchanged witness lists Aug. 30, Evans said. There are about 10 witnesses on each list, according to Williams, but he would not release their names.

Williams said no settlement between Shaw and the district is being negotiated. It's possible that will change after the depositions and both sides know what the witnesses are saying, he added.

Shaw left McCracken Middle School on Nov. 8 but continued to earn his $93,774 annual salary while on leave. The school board voted July 23, on the recommendation of superintendent Jeffrey Moss, to "suspend and terminate" an unidentified employee, subject to the employee's right to appeal. That employee was later identified as Shaw. Shaw requested the public hearing Aug. 13.

The hearing would be much like a trial, and the school board would decide whether to uphold the firing. Evans has said the board hopes to conduct the hearing as soon as possible to end an ordeal that has dragged on nearly a year.

Reasons for Shaw's leave and termination have never been made public.

At about the same time as his departure, district officials began a review of McCracken's policies and procedures. The review uncovered what the district characterized as an unauthorized bank account in the school's name that Shaw has said he knew nothing about. The account was later found to be linked to the school's PTO and student council, and was frozen and remains frozen, district spokesman Jim Foster said. A Bluffton Police Department investigation found no criminal activity related to the account.

No other details about the district's review have been released.

Shaw said in December that he thinks he was placed on leave as a cover-up for complaints he made against a counselor at the school.

JOHNSON'S RESIGNATION

In another personnel matter, district staff members still will not explain why former Pritchardville Elementary School principal Charles Johnson was placed on paid administrative leave last month.

However, Evans said this week that he thinks Moss presented to Johnson "some concerns, which I think (Moss) decided (Johnson) needed to resign." Evans said those concerns were what led the district to put Johnson, who earned $88,568 a year, on paid administrative leave Sept. 10.

Johnson resigned Sept. 19.

Attempts Wednesday and Thursday to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.

Several district officials said they would not comment on Johnson's departure because it is a personnel matter. Moss has said he thinks Johnson resigned for "personal reasons" but has provided no further comment. Asked Wednesday about Evans' account, Moss said personnel law prevents him from commenting.

The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette have filed a public-records request with the district to obtain information about any severance package given to Johnson, email correspondence between district administrators from the past two years pertaining to the principal's job performance and conduct, and a list of employees who have resigned or transferred from Pritchardville Elementary during his tenure.

The district has not yet responded to the request, which was filed Sept. 23.

An advertisement for the principal position at Pritchardville was posted the day Johnson resigned, Foster said. By late Wednesday, the district had received 39 applications.

Moss said the district will continue to accept applications until the position is filled, but the district will begin narrowing the candidate field this week.

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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